We Thought It Would Be Heaven

Resettled refugees in America face a land of daunting obstacles, where small things—one person, one encounter—can make all the difference in getting ahead or falling behind.

The number of people displaced by war, violence, and, increasingly climate change, continues to rise every year. For the few who are resettled, many arrive in their new homes dreaming that it would be like Heaven. We Thought It Would Be Heaven follows refugee families from the Democratic Republic of the Congo as they are resettled in the US. Taking you inside their lives, Sackett and Lareau show how, contrary to their hopes and dreams, the families find themselves starting their new lives at the bottom of a deeply unequal society. Expected to be self-sufficient within 90 days of arrival, refugees are often channeled into low-wage work, live in segregated neighborhoods, and send their children to some of the worst schools in the country.

This vibrant ethnography reveals how the very social service organizations meant to help refugees (and other Americans) can end up halting their access to critical resources through a bewildering array of opaque rules and inflexible deadlines. Seemingly small organizational errors—missing a deadline, mistaking a rule, or misplacing a form—tangle processes and derail refugees’ progress in their new lives. Nor are these obstacles isolated. The book illuminates how refugee families navigate a complex web of institutions, and problems in one arena can reverberate, creating new problems. With help from volunteers acting as cultural brokers and institutional insiders, some of the refugee families overcame these obstacles to unlock key resources in their pathway towards upward mobility—buying a house, sending their children to college. We Thought It Would Be Heaven illuminates how large-scale policies and social programs transform the lives of refugees, both helping and hindering their efforts to get ahead in America.