Abstract Social scientists studying forced migration are confronted with raw human experiences under extreme conditions, but also bear witness to the strength reflected in how people endure and reorganize. Cities in developing countries are the destination of the majority of the world’s refugees. In light of recent policies for urban refugees and alternatives to camps and an increased focus on resilience-building programmes by humanitarian agencies, global donors and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, this article explores the congruity, or lack thereof, between these draft agendas, emic (insider) and etic (outsider) concepts of wellbeing and resilience, and the priorities and realities of urban refugees in Cameroon. We also discuss challenges and ways forward in developing a resilience framework that is sufficiently flexible given the multitude of stakeholders concerned by urban refugee issues, from host government city and regional planning authorities, to humanitarian agencies, and the diversity of communities themselves. Introduction On World Refugee Day, 20 June 2016, hundreds of refugees from approximately 25 countries gathered on the esplanade of Yaoundé, Cameroon’s town hall. The theme of the celebration was the resilience of refugees and events included art exhibits, traditional drumming and music to show the persistence of culture, creativity and life after forced migration. However, once the speeches began, tensions became immediately apparent between the refugee communities, service-providing agencies including the United Nations and the government of Cameroon. Once the two refugee spokespersons took the stage, the crowd, mostly consisting of urban refugees who had been silent up until that point, began to applaud. The refugee speakers criticized the reduction of social services that they claimed where increasing the morbidity rates in their communities at the same time as hindering their ability to bury their loved ones with dignity. Urban refugees felt social service programmes were deterring their ability to achieve wellbeing and, in a sense, undermining their resilience. They cited examples of bodies being left at the morgue as the communities struggled for the means to cover these expenses—cutting from other needs in order to do so. In his final words, the president of the refugee collective noted that, in ignoring urban refugees, or supposing that they did not require any social services and focusing only on those in the camps, ‘the humanitarian community had failed in their analysis of the situation’. This disconnect between refugee and service providers perceptions of where humanitarian efforts should be focused underlined a theme echoed in work on Syrian refugees by Chatty (2016): there is a divergence in concepts and analyses of both needs and wellbeing, as well as ways to meet those needs, in urban refugee communities. We entered this ethnographic research aiming to explore how urban refugees—a population often considered by humanitarian agencies to be more resilient than refugees who stay behind in camps—perceive and pursue wellbeing in their lives (Eggerman and Panter-Brick 2010; Landau 2014). We explored the lives of urban refugees from various countries to build an understanding as to what extent emic, or insider, perceptions of wellbeing and resilience differ between different urban refugee communities and humanitarian agencies’ discourse on resilience (Ungar 2004, 2008; Wexler et al. 2008; Panter-Brick 2010; Ungar 2011, 2012; Panter-Brick 2014). Lens of Resilience Resilience is a term often employed by humanitarian agencies, but not consistently defined. Resilience, as defined by OXFAM (2013: 8), is ‘the ability of women, men, and children to realise their rights and improve their well-being despite shocks, stresses, and uncertainty’. Resilience is often used as both an adjective to describe refugees and an end goal of humanitarian programmes. Refugees are often called resilient by the humanitarian community, at the same time as programmes are designed to build their resilience (Eggerman and Panter-Brick 2010; Landau 2014; Gaynor 2017). The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) 2009 policy on urban refugees and later report on alternatives to camps (UNHCR 2014) call for increased protection space, legal support and advocacy with host-country governments to build the resilience of urban refugees, who comprise over half of the world’s displaced populations. But what, or whose, resilience is being referred to? How can it be built? In the humanitarian discourse, the increasingly popular concept of resilience often lacks conceptual clarity and, in many instances, appears to be little more than a new word inserted to replace old humanitarian paradigms (Béné et al. 2014). In popular humanitarian and development discourses, the relationship between resilience and wellbeing are particularly unclear (for more, see Armitage et al. 2012; Béné et al., 2014). In fact, as noted elsewhere, sometimes communities are considered to be resilient, but yet are not necessarily doing ‘well’ (see Armitage et al. 2012). Ungar (2004) suggests that this is the result of a disconnect between insider and outsider perceptions of wellbeing (Ungar 2004: 352). Understanding resilience within a society means understanding desired outcomes, ambitions and perceptions of wellbeing from a community perspective (Phan 2006; Eggerman and Panter-Brick 2010; Ungar 2012, 2013; Panter-Brick 2014, 2015). As noted in the opening ethnographic sketch, the humanitarian model of resilience, which we had come together to commemorate on World Refugee Day, was not shared with the urban refugees. They were referred to as resilient, but they did not understand how this could be true when they were still so far from meeting their emically defined needs and desires. Recognizing that human societies and the larger social, ecological or political systems in which they are situated are inextricably interrelated, we understand resilience through a social-ecological systems lens (Berkes et al. 2003; Folke 2006; Berkes 2010). In the face of perturbations or shocks ranging from forced migration to ongoing legal precarity or the inability to access care for chronic health conditions, urban refugee communities can either absorb the shock, implement slight modifications or adaptations, or transform the means by which their households or communities continue to meet their needs with the aim towards sustaining their wellbeing (Berkes et al. 2003; Folke 2006; Berkes 2010). At this stage, our aim was not to define or theorize resilience, but rather to understand how it is understood when applied by the humanitarian community, and within and between populations that they often call resilient (Eggerman and Panter-Brick 2010; Armitage et al. 2012; Folke et al., 2016). Methods Study Site This article is the outcome of the first phase (May–August 2016) of a three-phased ethnographic research project focused on urban refugee resilience. Phase I examined emic perspectives on wellbeing and resilience as applied to refugee communities, among urban refugees and humanitarian professionals in Cameroon. Yaoundé is a city where many are already struggling to meet their basic needs, and yet the country continues to host growing numbers of refugees from surrounding countries (Mattheisen 2012; CWS 2013; Walbert 2014). Similarly to the situation in many countries of the world, increasing numbers of these refugees are skipping the traditional camp context, which represents, to some, less opportunity for livelihoods with potential to increase their vulnerability. They therefore exercise their agency in choosing to relocate to cities where they see more and better livelihood opportunities (Tibaijuka 2010; Rainbird 2014). According to the most recent published refugee statistics, at the end of 2015, there were an estimated 459,650 refugees and asylum seekers in Cameroon, of whom over 25,000 are estimated to live in urban areas (UNHCR 2015a). The urban statistics vary widely. This is due, in part, to the transition of Refugee Status Determination from UNHCR to the government that has been underway since 2014 and was effectively completed in 2016. Cameroon is a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugee, the 1967 Protocol and the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. Cameroon also adopted Law No. 2005/006 on 27 July 2015, which further articulated the specific rights of refugees living in Cameroon. In addition to ensuring refugees abide by the same laws applicable to Cameroonian citizens, this law allows freedom of religion, the right to own property, the right to associate, the right to sue, the right to work, the right to government-issued identity documents and the right to citizenship, if they decide to go that route. Additionally, Cameroon grants prima facie status to individuals arriving in the territory, requesting that they make their request for asylum within 15 days of entry (Government of the Republic of Cameroon 2005; Mattheisen 2012). Refugees in Cameroon have typically settled on their own, with the camp phenomena cropping up only in the past few years with the influx of refugees from Nigeria and the Central African Republic, combined with fears of terrorism and security threats infiltrating the population (UNHCR 2015a). Rwandan and Chadian refugees were some of the first to arrive in relatively large numbers to urban areas in Cameroon, coming in different waves over the past two decades (Walbert 2014; UNHCR 2015a). Conceptual Framework This research is grounded within a social-ecological systems framework that allows an understanding of the collective and socially constructed experience of resilience and insider perceptions of wellbeing, while still taking into consideration the regulatory or political circumstances exerting power and influence on urban refugees in this political, social and ecological environment (Berkes et al. 2003; Gunderson and Holling 2002; Folke 2006; Ungar 2011, 2012, 2013). A social-ecological systems framework assumes that perceptions of wellbeing and resilience, and opportunities to reach resilience, take different forms in different contexts and are contingent on a range of socio-cultural, ecological and political circumstances (Berkes et al. 2003; Berkes 2010). This led us to include the perceptions of humanitarians as well as different urban refugee communities. The diversity of urban refugee communities in Cameroon made it an ideal site to explore our exploratory research questions in Phase I: How do different urban refugee communities and humanitarian professionals understand wellbeing and resilience? Where do their conceptions of resilience appear to diverge? Are there differences between groups of urban refugees? We did this through the proxy of trying to understand wellbeing, aspirations and to what extent they were being hindered or supported. Study Design and Population Our research participants included 42 male and 39 female refugees from Rwanda (55), the Central African Republic (22), Chad (four) and an additional 18 individuals from social service agencies. All participants were older than 18, with ages ranging from 22 to 73 years old. The different communities represented those who have been in Cameroon for a decade or more, mostly Rwandans and Chadians, and those who have arrived more recently from the Central African Republic. Of note, some of the Rwandan participants also arrived in a more recent wave from the Central African Republic or the Republic of Congo where they previously were registered as refugees but left because of conflict or xenophobia. Data Collection and Analysis We identified research participants for participant observation and focus groups using a snowball sampling approach. Kelly Yotebieng (K.Y.) and Paschal Awah (P.A.) first identified community leaders from their existing contacts in the field through their past work with urban refugees in Yaoundé and with support from humanitarian agencies providing support to refugees across the city. These community leaders then connected K.Y., who led the field data collection, with individuals and families. These individuals and families then invited K.Y. to meet other households within their social networks. Data were collected through daily participant observation and unstructured interviews over three months between May and August 2016. Additionally, we held two group discussions, one with 15 Central African community members (mixed group of youth between the ages of 19 and 30) and another with 18 Rwandan community members (all women between the ages of 24 and 73). During observations, unstructured interviews and group discussions, the predominant language was French, with translations in Kinyarwanda provided during focus groups and with support from a translator during unstructured interviews. Field notes were written in English and audio-recorded conversations were transcribed in French by K.Y., who is fluent in both languages. The two group discussions were conducted first, as a way to get an overview of their communities, and allowed K.Y. to meet individuals whom she could then visit and conduct participant observation in their homes and daily activities. Participant observation was conducted in research participants’ homes, places of worship, refugee-owned stores and community events including the World Refugee Day 2016 events and football matches (Schensul and LeCompte 2013). Several participant observation activities took place in agencies providing services to refugees, but this was often challenging, as very sensitive issues were being discussed. A comprehensive open coding scheme was inductively derived from and applied to the field notes and transcripts using MaxQDA software in order to produce a fine-grained descriptive analysis (Ryan and Bernard 2003; Charmaz 2006; LeCompte and Schensul 2010). Careful attention was paid to mention of characteristics related to the larger communities and networks (social-ecological systems) that community members felt they were a part of and impacted by, especially how they related to wellbeing over time. Memos were included to draw attention to any remarkable events, justifications for the use of specific codes and discussions of relationships emerging between codes. Results Participant observation revealed a lack of congruity between the draft humanitarian agendas and the priorities of different urban refugee community members from Rwanda, Chad and the Central African Republic in Cameroon (UNHCR 2009, 2015a, 2015b). Three common themes emerged from both communities and humanitarian professionals. The first theme identified differences between perceptions of wellbeing and aspirations and attitudes towards humanitarian programmes between groups and questions the utility of ‘urban refugee’ as a category of analysis given the seemingly endless variation between groups of urban refugees at a single site. The second theme underlined reservations that urban refugees had in regard to the application of concepts like resilience to their experience. They asked how resilience and wellbeing were possible in exile, with the idea of home being equated with peace and wellbeing, while their current situations, no matter how long they had been living as refugees, were equated with a sense of being out of place. Related to this second theme, many urban refugees noted the concrete impacts of the experiences of being out of place on their health in limiting their ability to access quality health services. The last common thread emerged as an area of convergence between refugees and service providers. Despite the concept of resilience being commonly tacked onto refugees in the humanitarian discourse, both refugee communities and humanitarians admitted that sometimes it seemed communities were ‘just surviving’ and they were not entirely sure how other than references to the ‘will of God’. It increasingly seemed resilience-building programmes among humanitarian actors in their current state appear to have simply replaced old paradigms related to vulnerability. Research participants were accustomed to telling their stories of struggles and humanitarian actors to collecting them, with little elicitation of the glimmers of hope among them and how stories of wellbeing and resilience could effectively be gathered and built upon. Each of these themes is further explored below. Pseudonyms are used for all research participants to protect their privacy. Diverse Urban Refugee Communities: Different Baselines, Different Expectations and Different Means to Confront Their Challenges We expected to find great diversity in the experiences and expectations of urban refugees given the range of diversity in linguistic and cultural backgrounds, education levels, length of time in country and whether they had come from rural or urban areas. It became increasingly clear the term ‘urban refugee’ encompasses such a wide range of communities: rendering the term itself almost meaningless as a theoretical or demographic category. Urban refugee broadly describes someone living as a refugee or asylum seeker in the city. As one experienced Cameroonian humanitarian professional noted: the challenge with humanitarian programs in cities, and urban refugees, is that the needs are so diverse. I mean, in one single day I can receive people from morning to close and find no common themes in their multifaceted needs. Despite knowing Yaoundé quite well, this research question and population were new to us. Yaoundé was presented through a completely new lens. This included visiting a range of neighbourhoods where we did not always expect to find urban refugees. Urban refugee housing situations ranged from middle-class areas to neighbourhoods that were still under construction where refugee families were living inside the unfinished structure as an informal agreement with the homeowner to informal settlements or slums. We also heard experiences of how urban refugees survived whether their asylum status is pending or was refused, leaving them as unauthorized asylum seekers in Cameroon. Within and between communities, there were varied reasons on why people chose to come to Cameroon, how it compared to their home countries or other places that they had fled and what their official legal status was in Cameroon. One pattern that did emerge was that those communities that had previously lived in urban areas tended to adapt quickly to Yaoundé. This had an enormous impact on how quickly they were able to find their way in this urban environment, as well as their expectations of good lives for their families. One humanitarian professional working with a United-States-based international non-governmental organization discussed the variation in the urban refugee community, noting: Refugees from CAR (the Central African Republic) also seemed to stand out, having more of a rural background, in general, than refugees from other (mostly non-neighboring) countries in the region …. The question of urban refugee settlement as de facto local integration was also a theme amongst UNHCR and aid workers since there was no real possible durable option for urban refugees in Cameroon, who were mostly holding out for resettlement. [At the same time] the Rwandan Cessation Clause was being invoked and debated in various countries and Rwandese were particularly anxious over their futures. Constant, a Rwandan refugee in his late 30s who has lived in Cameroon for 20 years felt some communities had different standards of living than others. This could inevitably lead to different goals, ambitions and perceptions of wellbeing. He especially lamented that the humanitarian community saw the Rwandans as ‘VIP refugees’ who did not need any additional support and, on top of that, should just go back to their home countries, since they were doing so well, as was Rwanda from the perspective of outsiders: He (Constant) felt that the Central African Refugees often came from rural areas, didn’t really have a culture (no traditional dance, etc.), had less French skills (spoke mostly Sango, but also do speak French now because they have to), and often worked doing small day jobs or as guards (night and day). The day jobs included helping to get things on and off trucks, digging holes for latrines and toilets, fixing and polishing shoes, and for women, selling peanuts, porridge, and beignets. At the same time, he suggested they regularly went home or expressed a desire to go home, something that most Rwandans feared more than their lives. He suggested that this was sort of the difference, as they were coming from rural areas and did not have as much know how of living in the cities as the Rwandans often did. When explaining the Rwandan community, he noted that when they came, they focused first on how children were going to eat with children’s continued education being an optimal concern. For this reason, they invested more in starting small stores, as unlike fixing shoes or sewing, even if they accrued increasing debt, they would have something to eat .... When I asked, since the community was so well-integrated, why they would want to stay a refugee, he noted that this allowed them a certain level of international protection (i.e. basic human rights and security) by the UNHCR (of particular concern to the majority of refugees was protection from financial or sexual exploitation and violence in Cameroon, as well as support for ongoing chronic health conditions), and they were fearful that this would be a push to return home (Excerpt from K.Y. field notes). The idea that the Rwandan community was ‘resilient’ or ‘a success story’ came up repeatedly from other refugee communities as well as humanitarian officials, who questioned why we would want to talk to Rwandans in the first place. There seemed to be a wide perception that they had somehow reached the summit, so well integrated that being a refugee no longer posed them any problem. What was often overlooked was that an international Cessation Clause had caused many to lose their legal papers allowing them to keep their refugee status. It seemed that the humanitarian community had moved on to the constant crises they were being faced with from Nigeria and the Central African Republic. Yet Rwandans disagreed. Ange, a Rwandan refugee woman in her 40s who recently became a widow and was struggling with chronic health issues and her daughter’s heart failure, noted: We came to rebuild our lives, Cameroon was a step down from the lives we previously held back home, for other refugees, just arriving in the city (Yaoundé) is as if they had arrived in Europe …. But humanitarian agencies don’t understand that …. One day they had forgotten I was in their office and they saw a refugee woman from Congo come up with nice clothes and I heard they say ‘look at her clothes, she has money, she is resilient, she doesn’t need support’. Ange felt these same humanitarian agencies had similar impressions of the Rwandan community. When they were compared to those that were newer, or seemed more urgent, their problems were minimized. She felt this led to discrimination against them for social services, even positive Refugee Status Determinations. They were punished for doing better than other communities but, for them, they still felt they had so far to go and could not achieve it on their own. Similarly, Constant noted: ‘Cameroon isn’t the end for me, I want more. I have been walking my whole life. I am still walking, I am not done yet.’ Effectively demonstrating this divergence in ideas of wellbeing that corresponded with the high degrees of variation within the ‘urban refugee community’, Bernard, a 59-year-old Chadian refugee, talked of the opportunities that Yaoundé presented to them in work that he previously had not enjoyed back home: Talking about the city, he noted that in Yaoundé, ‘tout chose marche’ (everything works). He talked excitedly about how, at least in the past, they were able to work as guards, housemaids, even in agriculture or buying goods from villages and selling them in town …. Indeed, despite the challenges of the city, he said they preferred it as it gave them more dignity and choice than camps did. Cities, to Bernard, also provide the opportunity to not be seen. Talking of the Chadian experience, he told me that people don’t like to stay in the camps because they don’t know who is who there, and they prefer to be able to hide (noting ‘nous les refugies, on aime se cacher’—we refugees, we like to hide) (Excerpt from K.Y. field notes). Despite the variation between groups, the theme of wanting to be invisible was common among nearly all of the refugee groups. Many noted that the city offered not only potentially more opportunities, but some protection from those whom they felt wanted to harm them. These data point to the need to rethink how to capture the divergence of backgrounds and perspectives of wellbeing if it is in any way to be linked to the goals of resilience of communities and households. Resilience and wellbeing are interconnected, highly subjective and contingent upon previous experience and expectations that were socio-culturally constructed and divergent between and even within groups. Is Wellbeing Possible when You Are Out of Place?—Michele, 68 (from Rwanda) Regardless of country of origin, and even if an individual was born in exile, as was the case with many Chadian and Rwandan youth in their late teens or early 20s, there was a pervasive sentiment that it was not possible to even think about wellbeing in a context where you are ‘out of place’. This corresponded to challenges in everyday life, including accessing certain legal and health services. It also impeded the achievement of a sense of happiness and belonging. These themes came up repeatedly during participant observations and informal discussions with research participants. Sometimes the challenges of being out of place were so great that refugees would tempt going home at great risk: I ran into Mathieu (30), one of my Central African research participants, and he was beaming. I asked what was going on, and he told me excitedly that he had finished his exams for the semester (he was enrolled at a local university) and would be heading back to Bangui to visit his family. Surprised, I clarified to see if I misunderstood. But indeed, he was planning on returning to the Central African Republic to visit family before coming back. He would be taking the risk of returning home, leaving his international protection at the border after negotiating with border agents on either side, and hoping he would be able to get it back, just to get a glimpse and feel of home again (Excerpt from K.Y. field notes). Similarly, in my discussion with Michele, a 68-year-old Rwandan widow, she noted: ‘Resilience? But is wellbeing possible when you are out of place?’ Michele, like many older women in the Rwandan refugee community, was living with a host of chronic health issues. This included HIV, which she acquired via ‘rape in the Equatorial forest’ while fleeing the genocide and hiding in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. She spoke of the difficulty in managing these issues without the social support of your ‘village’. Specifically speaking of challenges in accessing health care, she told me that, while antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) were free in Cameroon, xenophobia often got in the way of being able to access the services she needed: The Central Hospital was supposed to offer free consultations for her, but that she didn’t like to go there as she had been harassed by a Rwandan woman who was registering patients and insulted her, alluding to her as a genocidaire (genocide perpetrator). Instead, she went to a Hospital where there were Rwandan doctors and nurses for her yearly consultations, often meaning she would have to go later or skip appointments because she didn’t have the means to pay, and the UNHCR wouldn’t cover the costs if it wasn’t at the Central Hospital …. She noted that while she couldn’t return to Rwanda, at least if she was there she would be taken care of as the country had excellent HIV services which they had started implementing in 1998 when the situation had spiraled out of control. She noted that in Rwanda, the entire population contributed 1000 francs so that everyone could have access to healthcare through the mutuelles de santé (health insurance schemes), but that in Cameroon, even at some of the nicer hospitals, she had to bribe nurses who told her ‘you are an expat, you have money’ in order to receive services, telling me about one time when she had to slip 5000 FCFA to a nurse so that she would take care of her daughter and attend to her while she was giving birth (Excerpts from K.Y. field notes). Her family, now scattered across three countries, Rwanda, France and Cameroon, had experienced enormous hardships. They all lived in precarious situations in different ways, whether it be xenophobia in France or in Cameroon, continued insecurity in Rwanda and the challenge of being separated from one another. However, she later noted that she and her family had: lived everything, happiness, sadness, strife, challenges, so I guess, maybe, that makes us resilient, or compared to some of the strife, sadness, and challenges, we can consider ourselves to be doing well now? Michele’s strategy of trying to find solutions to meet her health needs in the face of challenging access to health care when you are not chez soi (at home) were also echoed by Jeannette. Jeannette, a 24-year-old Rwandan refugee who arrived in Cameroon when she was two years old on her mother’s back, was now struggling with heart issues, which required surgery that doctors had suggested she receive out of the country. Having initially hedged their bets on resettlement, Jeannette and her family realized that it would likely never happen and discussed the creative ways in which they tried to deal with chronic disease as foreigners in a country whose public health system was not always welcoming: She seemed to still not just have given up entirely. She noted that she did research on her own, and put herself on a vegetarian diet to see if it could help her. Noting that ‘tout ce que je veux maintenant c’est de retrouver la santé’ (all I want now is to be healthy again), and when asking herself if she could ever have a normal life, get married and have kids, even find someone who would accept her in that condition and with no official diplomas, she noted ‘C’est Dieu seule qui sait’ (only God knows). ‘Je veux seulement redevenir une personne’ (I just want to become a person again). She noted that she wanted to finish her studies, live a normal life …. She noted to me that she just had to keep smiling, it was the only thing that would get her through, even though that she was worried that as she got older, her problems would only get worse (Excerpt from K.Y. field notes). Often overlooked in studies of urban refugees in developing countries and relevant to research in urban anthropology and resilience, Refugee Status Determination issues repeatedly came up as well. They exacerbated the challenge of being ‘out of place’ and were an impediment to being able to live a quality life. Many Rwandan refugees had received ‘negative status determinations’ from the UNHCR, meaning that they either had to pay the equivalent of $150 for a two-year residence permit for each person in their household or they had to live in Cameroon without legal papers (Edwards 2013). Evariste, a 24-year-old Rwandan refugee whose family had lived in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, since 1998, was forced to flee again two years ago when civil war and insecurity made him and his family fear for their lives. They fled for the nearest border, Cameroon: Noting that his life was better there, he no longer had papers here, even a carte de séjour (residence permit), so he noted it was like he lived ‘en prison’ where he only went between the store and the house, which was attached to the back of the store. Otherwise, the police would stop him and harass him. He seemed afraid and demoralized. Noting that ‘on est capable’ (we are capable), he quietly said all he really wanted was papers, he didn’t need any additional assistance (Excerpt from K.Y. field notes). This latter component is one that came up repeatedly and unexpectedly in our research. While humanitarian agencies, operating on a limited budget, were providing some assistance to urban refugees, the support they were able to provide was limited. One humanitarian service provider lamented: ‘if they want assistance, they should go back to the refugee camps, unfortunately, we know the needs are great among urban refugees, but our funding is limited and dwindling.’ Among the services they provided were health care for children under five and elderly persons, support for people living with chronic health conditions, mosquito nets, legal and medical support for persons who had been victims of crimes including rape and limited support to provide local public schools. However, as mentioned by Evariste above, the most important service of everything to most was the establishment of refugee papers that provided urban refugees with an official legal document that they could use in country, permitting them to circulate freely, work, register for school, receive health care and avoid constant harassment by government officials. Urban refugees often spoke of themselves as ‘capable’, suggesting that they did not need handouts, but rather just support to get started, often referencing official refugee papers and small grants that could help them start a small business. In this sense, being ‘capable’ was also another way of reasserting their agency, rather than their dependency. During our previous work and conversations with humanitarian agencies, they hardly mentioned this at all, but it weighed heavy on the minds of some communities, particularly the Rwandans. Every Day Is a Combat—Jeanne, 39 (Rwandan) The idea of resilience as solely the ability to overcome trauma and come out without falling apart gets complicated when one questions what it means to fall apart and what experiences are considered traumatic (Rutter 2012). However, research is increasingly exploring how resilience is built and constructed by the experiences of living through constant life shocks (Ungar 2004; Phan 2006). The assumption is that a shock is something obvious, perhaps a war or a violent attack. Findings from our research indicate that there are other shocks that urban refugees are constantly up against, and often not on the radar of researchers, let alone humanitarian professionals. These mainly revolved around the stress and challenges linked with living in the cities where they found themselves, including access to health care, safety issues, legal-status issues, corruption and xenophobia. One excerpt from field notes after our initial focus group with Rwandan women underlined the continued everyday shocks that were part and parcel of their lives: They complained that the UNHCR and PLAN wanted them to become autonomous, but they didn’t see how that was possible in their context. Some of them were widows, some of them were separated from their husbands, some of them were single, unaccompanied women, and some of them were older; how were they supposed to take care of themselves with everything else on their shoulders? The question of age came up organically, with many women complaining that it was difficult to treat chronic health conditions that they have, and that they felt they became burdens, so they coped by reducing their ration and other expenses (including clothes, etc.). They felt they had to find new means to live in. They also noted that they had to reduce their medicine consumption, and this was especially challenging as it was difficult to find their traditional medicine in Cameroon. Jeanne, a 39 year old Rwandan women, noted that ‘every day was a combat,’ and this had only been compounded by the recent Cessation Clause which stripped so many of them with their rights to be a refugee. One woman in her 60s explained, ‘we are constantly being ignored, no one listens to us, it is another form of trauma, after all we have been from’ (Excerpt from K.Y. field notes). Others spoke of the constant struggle in finding adequate housing, chronic health issues that they often attributed to environmental factors and poor-quality housing conditions, the trauma of the past and the struggle to confront implicit bias on the part of Cameroonians. They felt they were often perceived as somehow better off because they were perceived as receiving assistance, even when many of the individuals were receiving no assistance at all: Laurentine, a 34 year old Rwandan refugee noted that for many, their lives had improved over time, but her case was different. She was just hoping for resettlement one day, noting that UNHCR had come to visit them about that, but they never heard anything else afterwards. She did note that she still thought there were other community members who were suffering even more than her, and that she sometimes was sad when they saw them. She noted that after she had been ill in the hospital with the new baby, she had even tried to call the violent father of her daughter who she had fled, asking if he couldn’t take her back, but he asked her never to call again, and refused to help his daughter. Apparently, he was now married to a Congolese woman with whom he had a baby (Excerpt from K.Y. field notes). Indeed, as we continued to ask questions about wellbeing, resilience and shocks, we heard repeatedly that life was nothing if not a struggle: ‘C’est la solidarité qui a sauvé les refugies ici’ (‘It is our solidarity which has been our saving grace here’). Despite a lot of divergence between their experiences, nearly all of the communities spoke about a ‘solidarity’ that united them. From our observation, this solidarity seemed stronger within rather than between refugee communities, although there were some groups that transcended communities (i.e. widows). The divergence between their perspectives on their wellbeing, and the term resilience that was applied to these communities extensively by humanitarian agencies, was stark. It appeared that resilience equated to little more than surviving the enormous trauma of war and being forced to migrate. This was testimony to a need to seriously refine the concept of resilience. Discussion This urban anthropological research is situated at the nexus of forced migration, wellbeing and resilience. Our fine-grained analysis revealed that both wellbeing and resilience are in the eyes of the beholder, especially in exploring the incongruity between who was considered to be faring better than others and why. Research with urban refugees allows us to explore resilience outside of humanitarian assistance zones. As interest in refugee issues grows, a turn towards urban refugees is imperative, as it allows us to account for the 60 per cent of the world’s refugee populations in our analyses (Betts 2015). Humanitarian issues are often left out of studies of urban anthropology and city and regional planning, with the impression that the issues facing the city are perhaps only those related to development. However, it has become increasingly clear in recent years that the humanitarian-development divide is nuanced, and in no place is this more pronounced than in studies of urban refugees (OXFAM 2013). Many of the issues they are facing may be related to the overall social-ecological context of the city they are living in (unemployment rates, strained infrastructure, etc.). While humanitarians have traditionally focused on rural and refugee camps with an assumption that those arriving in the city have decided to come because they are less vulnerable and have the means, this study questions these ideas (Landau 2014). Many urban refugees brought up their legal status as an obstacle to achieving health and wellbeing in their new homes. In order to receive subsidized care through the UNHCR, and in some cases to receive any health services at all, they needed to have some legal documentation to show. Furthermore, those who did not have legal refugee status often were unable to find regular work, leading to an inability to pay for health care, which was especially challenging when it came to some of the common chronic health conditions observed in the community. Rwandans were largely considered to be the most resilient refugee community by other refugees and humanitarian professionals. They felt this may be attributed to the fact that they were running small businesses in informal settlements across the city, but they lamented that they were also one of the refugee communities that truly did not see any future of being able to return home. Despite this, in recent years, they have been pushed back towards Rwanda with the loss of their refugee status. The implication of the cessation of their refugee status (e.g. Cessation Clause) was a strong encouragement for them to return Rwanda, but it also means the loss of their legal, education and health security in their country of asylum, Cameroon, causing new anxieties in their community that they are currently trying to navigate. Many of them attributed their legal precarity to something that risked causing many to become less resilient, echoing work by Castañeda et al. (2015) that suggests legal precarity can be a social determinant of health for many (im)migrants around the world. Similarly, Chadians were regarded as a community that had integrated well into Cameroonian society. While many were living in slums and working as security guards or selling peanuts on the side of the road, they were relieved that they could easily blend in with their Cameroonian counterparts. They often noted that they were confused for Cameroonians from the north, a part of the country Chad shares a long border with. Many Chadians noted that they could consider going home, but only if their safety was assured. Indeed, this seemed to be one of the primary reasons they continued their lives as refugees. Refugees from the Central African Republic seemed to be the group that lacked the cohesion and social organizations observed among the Rwandans and Chadians. They were also considered both by humanitarian professionals and other refugee communities as the most vulnerable urban refugees, and therefore received priority to the limited available interventions. Often times when visiting their homes, they stood out as being disconnected or distrustful of the larger communities trying to mobilize Central African refugees, and preferred to stay disconnected from those community groups. They subsequently appeared to know less about whom to contact if they were having any specific issues and stuck out in many ways as the most vulnerable. For this reason, their needs were often prioritized over those of other communities in the city. Lastly, when working with refugees, it is often the act of fleeing that is considered the largest shock, with other shocks that occur before or after this event often overlooked. Growing research on resilience also encourages us to look at the ‘steeling effects’ of resilience being born from exposure to shocks (Phan 2006; Eggerman and Panter-Brick 2010; Rutter 2012). If we are to build a stronger, more robust and applicable resilience theory, we are obliged to revisit what constitutes a shock, as well as the complex interactions among exposure to them, resistance, adaptation and transformation that lead to more or less resilient outcomes (Panter-Brick 2010; Rutter 2012; Panter-Brick 2014). The most pervasive issues that came up during our research revolved around legal precarity and issues related to Refugee Status Determination, access to health care and the ability to ensure continued care of long-term illnesses, and issues related to housing and security in the neighbourhoods where refugees were living. Urban refugees suggested that the services being offered by humanitarian agencies in cities were few and far between, often neglecting anyone who was more than five years old or under 50, and did not address these needs. They reiterated that they are ‘capable’ and that this should be leveraged in programmes addressing their needs. They would rather solutions towards being self-sufficient than the typical, short-term, humanitarian support that does not match the nature of the protracted situations that the majority of the world’s refugees live in. Rather, humanitarian attention appeared to be focused on things that were in some ways easier to address, including school fees at public schools and primary health care for children and elderly persons. Issues related to safety, security and support in securing legal status were perhaps the most unaddressed. Perhaps we will find common streams among urban refugees, as cited in this article and forthcoming in future research, and those of other urban populations that will allow resilient city frameworks to be inclusive of these attributes (Silva 2014). Limitations Our small sample size and qualitative design limit the generalizability of our findings. However, as a strength, qualitative approaches can inform the greater research and humanitarian community about the experiences and needs of urban refugees, including potential barriers and solutions in resource-constrained settings. This is especially important as resilience-building programmes are increasingly being developed in their favour, but with limited resources and understanding of their current situations, including what has worked well for some groups in different contexts. This research enabled us to uncover a wide range of experiences within a group that is often lumped together into one ‘urban refugee’ category and the critical need to explore the particularities of each group, rather than comparing them against each other. Conclusion In addition to providing insight into how people reorganize their lives to endure social suffering and forced migration, research on urban refugees can contribute to scholarship that aims to shed light on the full range of refugee situations (Kleinman et al. 1997; Landau 2014). This is increasingly important if we are to understand how cities in the developing world have long been, and continue to be, hosts of the largest proportion of displaced persons in the world (UNHCR 2009; Prasad et al. 2015). Resilience is a dynamic concept that has been increasingly applied to urban studies and humanitarian frameworks, including those related to forced migration (Eggerman and Panter-Brick 2010; Ungar 2012, 2013; Béné et al. 2014). Our study illustrated the challenges in the applications of resilience theory stemming in part from a diversity of perspectives on what the criteria for being resilient are, and vastly different expectations for wellbeing and corresponding coping strategies within and between communities. For this reason, it appears that humanitarian frameworks are struggling in their application of the concept. We recommend that we should step back and turn towards the communities that these programmes are aimed at to better understand their ambition and ideas on what a resilient community would look like for them (Panter-Brick 2010; Ungar 2013; Panter-Brick 2014, 2015). Ethnographic methods can uncover stressors that had not previously been on the humanitarian radar, but could jeopardize the success of ongoing programmes (Ungar 2013; Béné et al. 2014). This is also a first step in adequately building flexibility into resilience-building initiatives so that they build on, rather than undermine, community strengths. Ethnography allows us to start by observing and listening, and putting the needs and desires of our research participants first: chronic health issues, legal precarity and questions about the subjectivity of being part of where they live, where they want to go, and what their dreams were. Issues of legal documentation or ‘refugee papers’ merits further exploration, both in terms of the effect of legal precarity on perceived ability to achieve wellbeing, and strategies in coping with it. Further research can explore not only the concept of resilience and shocks, but strategies by which they are overcome. This is critical as, otherwise, how are cities, humanitarian communities, public health practitioners and others who have rallied around resilience building supposed to build community resilience when, as of now, it is something we barely understand? Acknowledgements I am thankful for the continued support of my mentors at both the Ohio State University and the University of Yaoundé I’s Departments of Anthropology, encouragement from Valentin Tapsoba and Khassim Diagne at the UNHCR for my research in Cameroon, as well as to my colleagues at RESPECT Cameroon, especially Damien Noma Eloundou, and my urban refugee key informants for their support in introducing me to the refugee communities in Yaoundé. K.Y. designed, implemented and recruited participants for the study. All authors contributed to writing this article. Ethical approval was sought and approved on 18 March 2016 from the Ohio State University’s Behavioral Institutional Review Board (#2015B0496) and a research permit was issued on 13 June 2016 from the Government of the Republic of Cameroon’s Ministry of Scientific Research and Innovation (No. 0000025/MINRESI/B00/C00/C10/C12). 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Journal of Refugee Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 30, 2018
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