A Phenomenological Study on the Experience of Syrian Asylum-Seekers and Refugees in the United States

Damir S. Utržan, Elizabeth Wieling

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations

Abstract

Violence in Syria has displaced an unprecedented number of people from their homes. While couple/family therapy (C/MFT) scholars have explored migration experiences, particularly among refugees, there is still limited research using a bioecological framework. This exploratory study examined the experiences of Syrian asylum-seekers and refugees living in the United States using a qualitative phenomenological approach. Twelve Syrians (n = 8 men, n = 4 women) between 20 and 52 years of age (M = 35.8, SD = 10.7) were interviewed about their experiences across three stages of resettlement: (1) pre-resettlement, (2) resettlement/migration, and (3) post-resettlement. Findings suggest that the effects of conflict-induced displacement and resettlement permeate across multiple ecologies. These range from the individual and his or her interpersonal relationships to their larger community and society. C/MFTs should account for contextual factors while becoming familiar with the sociopolitical impact of displacement and resettlement in their clinical work with this population.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)209-228
Number of pages20
JournalFamily process
Volume59
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - Mar 1 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
MacQueen et?al. () define community as ?a group of people with diverse characteristics who are linked by social ties, share common perspectives, and engage in joint action in geographical locations or settings? (p. 1929). The devastating effects of conflict and displacement place a heavy burden not only on individuals and families but also on the community. Some refugees resume their lives relatively quickly, although not without pain and suffering, while others become stuck in a perpetual state of uncertainty (Utr?an & Northwood,). Refugees who are unable to resume their lives may not bond with the community. They may also lose a sense of purpose and meaning (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA],), which prevents recovery. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association [APA],), defines trauma as ?exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence in one or more of four ways? (p. 272). Ways include: (1) directly experiencing the event, (2) witnessing, in person, the event as it occurs to others, (3) learning that such event happened to a family member or close friend, and (4) experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details. The effects of war and displacement are inherently traumatic and cut across multiple domains (Wieling,), such as family and community. Yet research has primarily focused on its individual effects (Summerfield,). This is concerning for several reasons. Families tend to move together as a group, even if they are separated at onset (Borjas & Borjas,). And interpersonal relationships are critical to coping with the aftermath of displacement (McIlwaine & O'Sullivan,). This exploratory study utilized a broad bioecological model to conceptualize the various levels that concurrently impact individual and family functioning. Additional models that were also helpful in framing the evolving experiences of migration, that is, displacement and resettlement, range from the double ABC-X model of family stress and adaptation (McCubbin & Patterson,) to ambiguous loss theory (Boss,) and the salutogenic model (Antonovsky & Sourani,). Probing questions during interviews, for instance, focused on: (1) how family members perceived stressors at various stages of resettlement, (2) how they made meaning of compounding losses, and (3) how the family remained the same or reorganized (i.e., changed) after their resettlement. A qualitative hermeneutic phenomenological approach was therefore well-suited to better understand how families responded to unexpected changes in their lives (Walsh,). Refugees often experience intense emotional discomfort that leads to not only physical problems but also a general dissatisfaction with life. They become emotionally numb, unable to verbalize their feelings, and avoid socializing with others altogether. Anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) worsen (Craig, Jajua, & Warfa,). Youth (i.e., children and adolescents) are forced to take on age-inappropriate parenting roles (i.e., parentification) after boundaries shift and caregiver support decreases (Henry et?al.,). Without adequate internal support, and the inability to obtain external support or resources, families become stuck in a recursive feedback loop that maintains negative interactions and reduce the likelihood of change (Nelson Goff et?al.,). MacQueen et?al. () define community as ?a group of people with diverse characteristics who are linked by social ties, share common perspectives, and engage in joint action in geographical locations or settings? (p. 1929). The devastating effects of conflict and displacement place a heavy burden not only on individuals and families but also on the community. Some refugees resume their lives relatively quickly, although not without pain and suffering, while others become stuck in a perpetual state of uncertainty (Utr?an & Northwood,). Refugees who are unable to resume their lives may not bond with the community. They may also lose a sense of purpose and meaning (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA],), which prevents recovery.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 Family Process Institute

Keywords

  • Asylum
  • Refugee crisis
  • Resettlement experiences
  • Syrian refugees
  • United States Refugee Resettlement Program

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

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