The Fragile Obligation: Gratitude, Discontent, and Dissent with Syrian Refugees in Canada


  • Maleeha Iqbal University of Toronto Author
  • Laila Omar University of Toronto Author
  • Neda Maghbouleh University of Toronto Author



Syrian, Mothers, Refugee, Emotions, Canada, Resettlement


This article analyzes the emotional lives of Syrian refugee mothers in the first year of their recent resettlement in Canada. Drawing on two waves of interviews with 41 newcomer mothers, we find three main affective themes in their resettlement narratives: gratitude, discontent, and dissent. Together, they capture a reality we term the fragile obligation, which reflects coexisting conditions of migratory indebtedness, disappointment, and critique. Inspired by foundational work in Critical Refugee Studies and Asian American/Ethnic Studies, centering refugee affect holds promise for revising dominant scholarly theories of immigrant integration, assimilation, and belonging from migrants’ perspectives in an era of widespread backlash, especially against Syrian and MENA/Muslim immigrants and refugees. By identifying complex post-migration affective states like the fragile obligation, researchers can help build more effective policies and practices to support Syrians and other forced migrants.

Author Biographies

  • Maleeha Iqbal, University of Toronto

    Maleeha Iqbal is an incoming PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. Her research is motivated by problems at the intersection of Race and Ethnicity, Migration, and Anti-Muslim Racism. She has a specific interest in groups from South Asia and the broad Middle East. In particular, Maleeha’s research investigates how global anti-Muslim racism is experienced and challenged across national environments; how identity-making is shaped by geopolitical contexts; and how collective, transnational identities may be formed. Email:

  • Laila Omar, University of Toronto

    Laila Omar is a fourth-year PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. Her primary research interests lie in the fields of International Migration and Qualitative Methods, with a special focus on the integration process of refugees and immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in Canada. More specifically, Laila’s research explores how Syrian refugee mothers and youth experience time and conceptualize their futures after their resettlement in the host country and during different stages of uncertainty. Her research is funded by the SSHRC Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship. Email:

  • Neda Maghbouleh, University of Toronto

    Neda Maghbouleh is the Canada Research Chair in Migration, Race, and Identity and Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto Mississauga. Her research focuses on the racialization of migrants from the MENA region and her academic publications include The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race (Stanford University Press, 2017). She begins a year-long residency at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Study at the University of British Columbia, Canada in August 2021 to write her second book, Disintegration, a comparative study of Canada’s Syrian refugee resettlement program and the U.S.’ Travel/Muslim Ban. Email:


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2021-06-08 — Updated on 2021-06-08