'Some Birds Sound the Same but Most Sing Different': Exploring Multisensory Place-Attachment and Wellbeing with Former Refugees in Nelson, Aotearoa New Zealand
Through everyday multisensory experiences, individuals familiarise themselves with unique environments, people, rhythms, and routines, and form meaningful sociospatial relationships and emotional place attachments. These relationships are often severed during forced displacement, leading many refugees to feel a sense of loss, grief, and disorientation which can negatively impact upon their wellbeing as they move through and resettle in new places. Feelings of loss and grief may be further compounded by the stress of settling into a new unfamiliar geographic terrain and culture.
Despite the importance that meaningful places can hold for individuals, place is often overlooked in resettlement research, which tends to prioritise the provision of basic needs and practices of social integration. However, in this thesis I suggest that a focus on place and multisensory processes of place-attachment can offer important insight into the emotional challenges and benefits of forced displacement and resettlement, and encourage new ways of supporting former refugees to maintain connections to their homelands, develop meaningful relationships with new people and places, and feel well in their everyday lives.
To explore how former refugees’ everyday multisensory experiences shaped their feelings of place-attachment and wellbeing, I facilitated a research project in Nelson, Aotearoa New Zealand. Local reports indicated that refugee mental health problems were increasing in this city, and residents had identified a need for ‘alternative’ (non-Western biomedical) therapies in the health system. Building upon an emplaced, relational epistemology and participatory arts-based methodology, the research included preliminary ‘scoping’ interviews with eleven Nelson resettlement practitioners; and meetings, site-specific interviews, map-making activities, painting workshops and a multisensory art exhibition with twelve female Chin and Kayan former refugees.
The conceptual focus on em-placement in this research was significant as it shifted away from the idea of refugees simply being displaced, to recognise that individuals are always physically situated and affected by their material encounters. My focus on multi-sensory experience was also important, as it enabled participants and myself to move beyond the common five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, and explore other visceral and proprioceptive ways of feeling, experiencing, and representing our surroundings, which contributed to more nuanced, productive ways of conceptualising wellbeing and disseminating research data.
Key findings from the project demonstrated that participants’ feelings of place-attachment and wellbeing were shaped through the evocation of nostalgic and fearful memories of the past, affective emotional responses in the present, and the accumulation of multisensory experiences, memories, and emotions over time. These experiences influenced the girls and women’s sense of familiarity, safety, happiness, hope, and belonging in both positive and negative ways. They also influenced their feelings of being in or out-of-sync with local time-structures and rhythms, and shaped how they accessed, used, structured, and negotiated space and time and created unique homely and therapeutic-feeling places. Thus, I argue that everyday multisensory experience and meaningful people-place relationships require greater consideration in resettlement research, particularly as the number of globally displaced peoples reaches an unprecedented high, and New Zealand commits to raising its official UN refugee quota and resettling more newcomers in Nelson and other resettlement cities.