By Cheri Siebken
Every few years as she was growing up, Ana Lucia Marquez found herself living in a new home -- usually in a different city, sometimes in a different country -- as her father's career kept the family moving throughout Mexico and South America. So when she had the opportunity to work with refugees seeking to find a new home, she could empathize with their experience.
Marquez, an international relations major, was studying abroad her junior year in Copenhagen, Denmark, learning about asylum and immigration policies. As part of a service learning seminar, she began working with female refugees, many of them coming from the Middle East and North Africa. "They missed spicy food and didn't like the cold weather -- just like me," says Marquez. "They were willing to open up to me not just because I looked like them, but because I'd had experiences like them."
Marquez says that as their relationship developed, the women began opening up to her about how difficult it was to be a refugee and the discrimination they faced. "It was much different than what I was seeing every day in the media, which always seemed to be very negative toward refugees," says Marquez. "I decided someone needed to write stories from their perspective."
After her term abroad, Marquez returned home to Mexico City, wondering about the experiences of refugees in her own country. She contacted Amnesty International and spent the summer volunteering for their refugee program, again documenting the experiences of female refugees. In Mexico, refugees are primarily from Central and South America, with increasing numbers from Haiti, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The stories told to her by the women she interviewed became the basis of her College Honors project, "Integration, Gender, and Complexity: A Study of Refugee Women in Denmark and Mexico." In it, she compares the cultural, economic, and social integration of refugee women in the two countries.Ana with her poster presentation about her community-based research project.
"Studying the situation of refugee women in Mexico and Denmark allowed me to study two different contexts for integration," wrote Marquez in her Honors paper. Danish refugees, especially those from Muslim countries, had very different patterns of dress and food, as well as different values and customs, compared to the majority of Danes. Education level and position in the family also limited the economic opportunities of refugees in Denmark.
In contrast, refugee women in Mexico often spoke the same language in their country of origin as in Mexico. Their cultural values and practices resemble those of their host country, despite the differences in traditions. While refugees in Mexico often had to deal with poverty, their socioeconomic position resembled more closely that of the majority of Mexicans.
Because of these similarities, women refugees in Mexico displayed high levels of cultural integration, even with limited support from the government. Despite extensive laws promoting integration and a Ministry of Integration (the first in Europe), Marquez says cultural integration for women in Denmark was often a more difficult process.
"Understanding how different factors influence integration leads me to consider that it is not a state-led process. While policies can influence the assimilation of refugee and immigrant populations -- through entry requirements and social assistance -- integration occurs more at a grass-roots level," wrote Marquez in the conclusion of her Honor's paper. She further wonders if state policies are even necessary or beneficial.
Marquez's research has had an impact on her career interests. "I thought that I wanted to work in international politics and diplomacy," says Marquez. "Now I want to do grass-roots social work in other countries. My Honors project shaped that decision."