Posted by on June 23, 2014 in Blog

By Elizabeth Adams
Summer Intern, 2014

In light of World Refugee Day which took place last week, it is appropriate to spend some time reflecting on the plight of Arab refugees in the United States. 

In the recently published book, Biopsychosocial Perspectives on Arab Americans: Culture, Development, and Health, researchers from the American University in Cairo, the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and the Center for Cumulative Trauma Studies shed light on the unique case of Arab refugees in the United States. Together, they wrote a chapter titled “Arab Refugees: Trauma, Resilience, and Recovery” which can be used as a basic guide on the topic.

Horrific conflicts such as the Iran-Iraq War, the genocide in Darfur, and the Lebanese Civil War precipitated waves of immigration by Arabs to the United States. Many of these people fleeing conflict are people who experienced early childhood traumas, loss of loved ones, oppression, and torture.

While everyone responds to trauma differently, certain factors make people more or less resilient to the experience, and more or less likely to recover. These factors need to be understood in order to make treatment more effective and to reduce the possibility of worsening or retriggering the trauma.

The type of trauma that Arab refugees have often faced must be understood to be different than the individual type of trauma – such as sexual abuse – that most caseworkers are familiar with. These people have been a part of “collective identity traumas”, which include events such as oppression, torture, and genocide that target entire groups. 

Being targeted as part of an identity group affects Arab refugees in a few different ways. The Arab culture places high importance on social support networks and family ties. This increases the chance that the concept of “family honor” will come into play, in which case there is a tendency to impose a self-stigma on receiving mental health services. This is an important issue considering that Arab refugees suffer from a higher rate of mental and physical health issues than the general public. 

On the other hand, suffering among a group can enhance the connection with fellow victims and enhance chances of recovery, added to the fact that Arab families are more likely to be intact than the general public, which increases resilience to trauma.

The book also details the way that Arab refugees adapt to the new cultures and how that impacts their chance for recovery.  For example, after 9/11, there was a significant amount of backlash against Arabs in the U.S. media and policy. We saw an increase in hate crimes and discrimination against Arab Americans. Information on the discrimination that Arabs experienced can be found in the Arab American Institute’s pamphlet titled, “Healing the Nation: The Arab American Experience After September 11”. According to Padela and Heisler, perceived post-9/11 discrimination correlates strongly with, “psychological distress, reduced happiness levels, in addition to more health problems.” 

Another considerable source of stress for Arab refugees in the United States is the guilt of leaving loved ones behind in the home country and the pressure to help them (by sending money, working to help them emigrate, etc.). Added pressures come in the form of economic issues; refugees that held well respected positions in their communities at home could have a hard time finding another position of similar status. Refugees, women in particular, may suffer from isolation if they do not work outside of the home or speak English.  Interestingly, in a separate study the method for effective recovery in boys was found to be different than for girls in certain communities.

Strategies for recovery from trauma vary from person to person. Multiple layers of their lives have been disrupted and can possibly be put together again through “multi-systematic, multi-modal interventions.” Simply put, this means that refugees can be rehabilitated through addressing the problem from all different angles of their lives.

At home, prayer, talking with friends, reading, sleeping, and watching TV have been found to work as coping mechanisms for Somali and Oromo refugee youth. In the community, refugees can seek legal redress for discrimination through organizations and advocacy networks. Economic and employment assistance is also important, as well as help with their U.S. residency status.

Religious leaders often play a large role in Arab refugee communities. According to I.A. Kira et al., “[Arab religious leaders]… may get involved in mediating family conflicts, solving social problems, or promoting positive community healing practices…. Orienting religious leaders to be community champions for improving physical and mental health can help reduce gender-based violence, female genital mutilation, and gender discrimination.”

If the old saying is true that it takes a village to raise a child, then it will take a nation to aid these refugees in recovery. This is not a small issue: over 60,000 Somali and 40,800 Iraqi refugees were admitted to the United States between 2000 and 2009 alone. Some organizations helping with the integration and recovery of Arab refugees are the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Arab American Family Services , ACCESS International Rescue Committee, Lifetrack, and Refugee Services of Texas.


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