Refugees and Resilience: The Need to Acknowledge and Brew this ‘Ordinary Magic’

Refugees are one of the most discriminated against minority groups globally. The Indian State has had a long history of grappling with the influx of refugees resulting from a number of wars in the Indian subcontinent. India and Pakistan have fought four wars since independence over a host of disputes. However, a common outcome of these wars, as is for any war, was the displacement of people from citizens to refugees. The term illegal has been thrown around for such displaced people all over the world, often being accused of posing a threat to national security. 

While a lot has been said about the refugee crisis from a political standpoint (as it should), there is a paucity of understanding the phenomenon from a rehabilitative point of view, at least in the Indian context. Given that refugees often go through immense trauma, not just in their home communities, but also in their host countries, it is important to acknowledge their experiences, their strengths, and how they cope, in a way that does not pathologize or problematize. A common psychological construct that takes such a strength-based approach is resilience

Ordinary magic: What is psychological resilience?

Psychological resilience is a dynamic psychosocial process through which individuals exposed to sustained adversity, or potentially traumatic events are able to adapt to their circumstances with positive psychological outcomes over time. Experts in the field have described psychological resilience as involving interaction of mechanisms that range from the individual level, such as personality factors, to the structural level, such as culture. Certain dispositional aspects of a person undoubtedly help them face seemingly insurmountable challenges. Specific coping mechanisms known to facilitate resilience include reappraising a situation more positively, regulating emotions, and utilising social support. However, resilience theory sees individuals as embedded within an environment of personal relationships, cultures, economies, and neurobiology. 

A key factor of the social environment that adversely impacts a migrant’s mental health is social inclusion/exclusion and formal social support. Social exclusion refers to the exclusion of groups and individuals from society. Immigrants are at risk of being excluded due to various factors like race, ethnicity, social class, and sexual orientation at an individual level, and factors such as migration status at a systemic (institutional) level. For instance, while the “shared culture” and “shared language” between refugee parents and their immigrant children are found to facilitate positive developmental outcomes, that might lead to ‘otherization,’ by the host community. Further, social exclusion can affect mental health by limiting opportunities for education, employment, and housing. It can also reduce individuals’ self-esteem and mastery (perceived control over their life circumstances), thereby creating stress that affects physical and mental health. Resilience is made up of ordinary, rather than extraordinary processes; people can learn and develop resilience. It is important to systematically examine these factors, to understand what facilitates growth and adaptation to the novel, the stressful, and the unfamiliar.

Resilience unfolds over a lifetime and has been shown to express differently according to gender, culture, and age. Prior adversity may steel individuals against later traumas, as they develop resources, relationships, and effective coping skills. In short, resilience research, like much of the research in positive psychology, is clear in its position that change and adaptation are always possible. 

Changing the narrative

However, professionals working in this space often tend to ignore the strengths of refugees and are focused on their trauma. The Westernized individualistic models that emphasise deficits are dominant, wherein they are often defined as traumatized victims in need of help. For instance, forced migration and displacement, and subsequent exposure to sustained trauma has been found to be associated with psychopathologies, such as depression and PTSD. However, it has also been established that individuals who experience conflict-driven and traumatic forced migration do not always develop mental disorders. In fact, assigning Western diagnostic labels like PTSD and anxiety disorders may reduce visceral coping strategies to natural reactions to their calamitous circumstances. A systematic review finds that the quality of psychological resilience was generally shown to be associated with better mental health in displaced populations. Therefore, what might be more useful is a communal model shedding light on their strengths that includes broader social contexts.  

Compartmentalizing the refugee situation as a “problem” does not do justice to the refugee narrative. What about refugees who successfully adapted to the conditions of the country they moved to? This is the lens through which the resilience perspective views the refugee situation - it takes on a strengths-based focus. This is a perspective emphasized by positive psychology, a field that would view the refugee situation as more than just a “problem” with deficits that need to be fixed (such as trauma undergone, lack of access to resources), and to integrate to this picture, the equally important ability to adapt to unfamiliar environments, and thrive

What hinders resilience and what fosters it 

Often obstacles include language barriers, as has been explored before, which makes the refugees feel powerless and disadvantaged, with hindered prospects of independence. They often also face racism and discrimination. For instance, a qualitative study involving Pakistani and Somali urban refugees living in Kathmandu found that refugees faced discrimination and fear of abuse because of their religious beliefs or skin colour. Somali refugees were especially scared because of visible differences in their skin colour. Among their daily stressors included finding and keeping housing, lack of financial independence, exacerbated by lack of employment opportunities. Oftentimes they also face physical and verbal abuse and are denied access to services.  Moreover, with little financial independence, and opportunities for employment, they often experience little to no control over their lives, which increases the challenges to maintain mental well-being. This led them to develop low self-esteem, especially if they learned new skills but did not get the opportunity to employ them. 

Socializing and having strong attachments with their ethnic peers and other refugees, for example, has been found to have helped young refugee people cope with resettlement-related problems, as well as with their well-being. It motivated them in improving their skills, which further helped in their self-esteem by bolstering their hope in gaining employment, and eventual financial independence. Engaging in sports and working at community centres helped them in building resilience. Language-classes conducted intergenerationally, and cultural awareness programming might be helpful in the long run.

Prayer also acts as a bulwark against suicidal ideation, aided in the acceptance of trauma, and gaining control over and finding meaning in their lives. Engaging with Buddhist philosophy, for example, has helped orphaned refugee children by giving them structure. The rituals promoted integration in the broader community. Utilizing strength-based therapeutic approaches, that are also culturally cognizant is often the key. In addition to trauma and grief focusing activities, creative techniques and relaxation, a multimodal program that consisted of individual, family, and group sessions using a psychoeducational approach has been useful, provided they were not severely traumatized showing symptoms of complex psychiatric disturbances.

Taking the larger context into account, the host community’s reception also is paramount to how refugee people adjust to their new environments. For example, the Pakistani refugees in Kathmandu often had to resort to illegal labour to create income, since they were made unwelcome in the larger community. This was not even an option for Somali workers who were discriminated against because of their skin colour. Thus, at a community level, it might be important to include a wide array of stakeholders, such as public health systems, and local communities.

International migration is a complex phenomenon that affects the economic, social, and security aspects of the lives of not only the migrant community but also the host countries. Responding to the refugee crisis and migration is a global challenge and requires institutional changes in each of the host countries. Policies such as dedicated assimilation efforts, mental health services, education and employment efforts, and parent-child language teaching might be beneficial and might lead to a relatively unhindered immersion process. Such changes must first address the importance of resilience for those displaced, and endeavour to understand the underlying processes in order to incorporate systemic ways in which to engender and sustain resilience in refugees.  

India hosts about 2 lakh refugees and asylum seekers, from over 30 countries as of December 2016, according to the UNHCR. On the whole, India’s response has been positive in terms of providing refugees with legal asylum. The need of the hour, however, is to rehabilitate them and help them become a part of the community.

Arathy Puthillam, Aneree Parekh, & Pooja Sathyanarayanan