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Pre- and Post-migration Trauma and Adversity: Sources of Resilience and Family Coping among West African Refugee Families

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Chapter
3
Pre- and Post-migration Trauma
and Adversity
Sources of Resilience and Family Coping
among West African Refugee Families
Aïcha Cissé, Lucia De Haene, Eva Keatley, and Andrew
Rasmussen
Trauma, Adversity, and Resilience
There is a broad consensus in scholarly literature that refugee familiesmental wellbeing is
impacted by both pre- and post-migration adversity [13]. Signicant stressors, ranging
from war trauma, persecution, and prolonged exposure to political and civil unrest to the
often chronic absolute poverty that pervades such contexts, form the push factors for
migration. The immigration process itself involves a number of migration-specic stressors,
starting with the potential for ight-related stressors such as deprivation, detention, exploi-
tation, and human tracking. Shortly after their arrival in the host country, refugees may
face diculty nding initial housing and employment, the threat of deportation, and the
general liminality of initial resettlement contexts [4 ]. Once settled, refugees face yet another
array of potential stressors related to acculturation, parent-child acculturation dissonance,
downward shifts in social status and de-skilling [5], loss of extended family and community
support systems [6], relative poverty [7, 8], discrimination, and/or social isolation. In
addition to causing distress themselves, post-migration stressors may aggravate the eect
of pre-migration stressors and impede wellbeing in the host country [9, 10].
The cumulative-eects model contends that early adverse experiences have a long-term
impact on wellbeing and functioning to the extent that these eects are reinforced or
maintained by later adverse experiences [11]. Similarly, the stress-sensitization model
stipulates that exposure to adversities earlier in life reduces an individuals threshold for
negative reactions to subsequent stress later in life [12]. Empirical evidence suggests that,
even in the absence of childhood adversity, trauma and prolonged exposure to adversity can
lead to psychopathology (e.g., PTSD) or to psychological and emotional distress signicant
enough to impair social functioning [13]. At the family level, the negative impacts of
adversity on family members have been linked to disrupted family functioning. Studies
have shown that, for parents exposed to trauma, parenting may be challenging because
traumatic experiences may lead to overwhelming depressive and anxiety symptoms,
which in turn may lead to less eective parenting, frustration with or worry about their
inability to protect their children, and diminished ability to be sensitive to their childrens
needs [14, 15]. Although limited, the literature on refugee parentsrelationships with their
children mirrors such ndings [16].
Although exposure to trauma has been empirically shown to negatively aect mental
health, the majority of people who are exposed to trauma do not develop clinically
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signicant mental health problems [13, 17]. A growing body of research has shifted the
traditional focus from negative outcomes to resilience. Resilience reects the ability to
maintain a stable equilibrium, consisting of the maintenance of relatively stable levels of
psychological functioning following exposure to trauma or adversity [18]. Resilience is
more than the simple absence of psychopathology; it refers to psychological wellbeing and
healthy functioning across behavioral, cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal domains.
Various models have been proposed to explain the processes through which resilience
occurs at the individual level. The homeostasis resilience interactive model [18] proposes
that environmental-systemic factors at the individual (e.g., coping strategies), microsystem
(e.g., social support from community members), and macrosystem (e.g., schools and
religious institutions) levels build upon each other to comprise multidimensional stabilizing
environments. Similarly, Harveys ecological model of trauma and trauma recovery [19]
contends that psychological attributes of human beings are best understood in the ecolo-
gical context of human community(p. 4). Individual responses to trauma are explained in
light of the cultures, values, behaviors, skills, and meanings of adversity that human
communities cultivate in their members(p. 4). Echoing the homeostasis model, Harvey
[19] proposes that resilience is the result of complex interactions between individual and
interpersonal factors, cultural understandings, types of trauma, and surrounding environ-
mental factors. Other models of resilience that use family as their unit of analysis have found
links between eective parenting practices, healthy family relations, and greater post-
trauma resilience in both parents and children [2024].
In research involving refugee families, examining familieseorts to manage and cope
with migration and pre- and post-migration trauma and adversities entails a close analysis
of individual- and family-level protective factors, spousal dynamics, parenting styles,
ethnocultural identications, and interactions with pre- and post-migration sociopolitical
contexts. Moreover, native and host countriessociocultural norms and frames of reference
regarding mental health may shape the meaning-making of trauma and other adverse
experiences, which in turn may inuence the individual- and family-level coping strategies
involved in resilience processes. Indeed, although post-traumatic psychopathological
responses have been observed cross-culturally [25], variations were found in types of
responses and conceptualization of trauma [2731]. Because trauma is a Western construct
[26, 27], its conceptualization (e.g., ICD and DSM criteria for PTSD) may not reect non-
Western frames of reference for understanding, dening (e.g., local idioms of distress),
coping with, and healing trauma [17, 2731]. In this regard, research shows that many non-
Western communities share relatively well-established frameworks for explaining and
addressing post-traumatic responses [2831]. Working with refugee families entails being
aware of and understanding diverse culture-specic trauma-related frameworks.
A Narrative Inquiry on Coping with Pre- and Post-migration
Stressors in Refugee Families
In this chapter, we report on a study of family migration narratives of West African refugee
families in order to identify patterns of culturally shaped and familial sources of resilience.
In pursuing these aims, we focused on participantslived experiences of pre- and post-
migration stressors and the construction of strategies to cope with their impacts within
family relationships. Our goal was to develop an in-depth understanding of how the impacts
of these stressors were shaped and negotiated within family contexts. To this end, our
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ndings are meant to reect how participants ascribed meaning to their life experiences and
how the processes of meaning-making were shaped within their relational and sociocultural
contexts. The study was embedded within a narrative inquiry methodology.
Narrative inquiry distinguishes itself by its focus on experiences as related by
participants [32]. Narrative research contends that individuals live and understand
their lives in the form of life stories, in which events are connected from past to
present [33]. Individual life stories are embedded within particular family, cultural,
and sociopolitical contexts intersecting with life experiences and the meanings that
people make of them [32]. These stories represent their experiential meaning-
making; that is, how they connect and integrate experiences based on both individual
and environmental factors. Importantly, narrative researchers distinguish narrative
truth from historical truth in that they focus on constructed accounts of experiences,
not factual records; the focus is on how people experience and understand life
events [32].
Methods
Participants
In order to recruit West African refugees with a diverse history of exposure to pre- and
post-migration stressors, participants were recruited in cooperation with a mental
health clinic serving asylum seekers and several community-based organizations
(CBOs) in New York City. Our sample consisted of 16 West African immigrants
between the ages of 33 and 61 (M = 42.62) in 8 families. Four families were recruited
at the clinic and four through community contacts (i.e., through an Imam and during
ahealthfairheldataCBO).
The number of children per family varied from 2 to 9 (M = 4.75), with ages ranging from 1 to
28. All participants were Muslim and identied as Fulani (n = 12), Mandingo (n = 3), or Sousou
(n = 1). Participants were from Guinea (n = 4), Sierra Leone (n = 6), Mauritania (n = 2), Côte
dIvoire (n = 2), and Liberia (n = 2). All participants reported that they migrated involuntarily
(i.e., forced migrants). At the time of the interviews, participants had lived in the USA
for between 2 and 19 years (M = 11.13), with residency statuses ranging from undocumented
(n = 1), withholding of removal (n = 4), temporary protected status (n = 2), asylee (n = 6),
permanent residence (n = 2), and citizenship (n = 1). Participantseducational histories varied
from college degree (n = 2), some years of college (n = 1), high school degree (n = 3), 4 to 11 years
of formal schooling (n = 3), Koranic schoolingonly(n=2),tonoschoolingatall(n=5).Ten
participants spoke English at or above functional level, while six did not. All but two participants
were employed at the time of the interviews.
Procedures
Data collection Data were collected through the administration of two subsequent in-
depth, semistructured interviews with each participant family. A rst interview pro-
cedure consisted of joint parental interviews with both spousal partners, followed
within a few weeks by individual parent interviews with each of the spouses. First,
joint parental interviews aimed at the construction of pre- and post-migration narra-
tives reecting the joint meaning-making of pre- and post-migration lived experiences
as a couple and as a family (e.g., parenting in exile, coping with separation and
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reunication). These joint parental interviews aimed at developing the migration
narrative as lived by family members: The term family migration narrativethus
refers to the retrospective account of what happened to dierent family members
and not to the result of some empirical procedure in which all family members were
included in data collection. Next, individual parent interviews focused on an in-depth
exploration of parental meaning-making of family relationships in exile, addressing
relational processes of narrative transmission, family communication on loss and
traumatic histories, parental authority, transgenerational and transnational relation-
ships, and family roles in relation to migration history and exile. Between interviews,
narratives were arranged on timelines, and in second (individual parent) interviews,
participants were asked to (1) conrm these timelines and (2) use them to reect on
family functioning over time and on the potential impacts of pre- and post-migration
experiences. Interviews were administered using a semistructured interview guide. In
total, twenty-four 90-minute in-depth qualitative interviews were administered; inter-
views were conducted in English, French (by uent interviewers), or Fulani (with
interpreters).
Data analysis We sought to use a holistic, content-focused approach in order to examine
participantsnarratives. In line with Schleiermachers idea of the hermeneutic circle [32],
sections of narratives were interpreted in relation to the other sections. Particular attention
was given to cultural, social, political, and historical factors mediating the meaning-making
of lived experiences. Findings are organized consistent with our aims: narrative content
followed by the domains in which we identied sources of resilience.
Reexivity The rst author is of West African descent. As someone who grew up
with an African immigrant father who sought political asylum in Europe before she
was born, she had a personal interest in attempting to understand the plight of
other members of the African diaspora. Besides knowledge she acquired growing up
in an African immigrant community and then being an immigrant in the USA, she
also learned about African culture on the ground, as she regularly travels to Guinea
and other African countries. Coauthors were informed by extensive clinical,
research, and community experience with West African immigrants in the USA
and Europe.
Results
Refugee Family Narratives: Pre- and Post-migration Experiences
Although participantsdegree of agency in the decision to emigrate from home countries
varied, all reported that they were forced to migrate because of harsh and sometimes
unbearable living conditions. Of the 16 participants, 9 reported experiencing some form
of pre-migration trauma, including persecution (e.g., arrest, imprisonment, torture), wit-
nessing and being a victim of armed conict, captivity, forced labor, and sexual violence.
Although participants shared detailed information about other pre- and post-migration
adversities, those who mentioned potentially traumatic events (often in the form of brief
fragmented accounts) did not want to share detailed information about these events. A 36-
year-old Guinean woman explained, I want to forget about that; I got a new life ... so
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I dont want to get back on that; a 40-year-old Guinean man said, I want to bury that; its
the past.
All participants reported pre-migration exposure to chronic adversity, such as concen-
trated poverty, unemployment, political instability, insecurity, and limited access to health-
care, education, and basic utilities. All reported experiencing common post-migration
adversity: nancial hardship, diculty nding employment, discrimination in the workplace
(e.g., lower-paying jobs), liminal immigrant status, and housing-related issues. Participants
all reported that the most dicult post-migration period consisted of the initial months after
arrival. Because none had work permits and some did not speak English, most participants
started owith some form of informal employment (e.g., selling goods on the street, hair
braiding), and some eventually found more stable employment (e.g., taxi driver, home health
aide). All participants also reported housing diculties, such as living in small and over-
crowded apartments. Yet another reported diculty was obtaining legal immigrant status.
All participants reported that they relied on the help, support, and advice of other
Africans (family, friends, or acquaintances) already settled in the USA. Some also reported
that they simply found out where African neighborhoods were located and went there to
seek help. For example, upon his arrival in New York, one Sierra Leonean participant went
to an area where he was told a lot of Africans resided. Once there, he met a Senegalese man
who, although they had never met before, provided him with housing, lent him money, and
advised him on how to get settled. In a similar vein, a Guinean woman reported that she
went to an African hair salon to socialize and ask for advice on how to nd employment.
Although she had no former experience as a hairdresser, the women working at the salon
oered her a temporary job until she found more permanent employment, and they
informed her about how to get healthcare.
Another diculty experienced by most participants was separation from family mem-
bers left behind in home countries. Seven out of the eight couples faced spousal separation
due to migration, with husbands usually preceding wives (except in one case). Length of
separation was 18 months to 3 years. All but one participant family reported separation
from at least one child due to migration. Separation from children during migration was
ubiquitous for men, but also reported by four of the eight women, who resorted to child
fostering by family members in the home country until they were able to have their children
join them. Except in cases where participants did not know the whereabouts of their
children and spouses for some period of time, most expressed that separation was dicult
yet surmountable because they knew it was only temporary. Overall, separation from family
members was reported as having had little or no impact on spousal and parent-child
relations.
Because it was more long term and often permanent, separation from extended family
members reected a more signicant source of grief and sense of loss. All participants
expressed that they missed not only their relatives but also the collectivist aspects of
extended family networks. For many, the loss of extended family structures was identied
as the most-missed aspect of West African culture. However, participants reported being in
close contact with family members back home. Men who had occupied the role of head of
the extended family in their home country reported that they kept their position even after
migrating, and thus were regularly solicited when important family decisions had to be
made. Participants reported having nancial responsibilities in their home countries,
mostly in the form of sending remittances to family members in need. Although partici-
pants reported that balancing remittance obligations with the high cost of living in the USA
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was a considerable source of stress, they expressed that these obligations were an important
aspect of family life and responsibilities.
Although all participants reported that settling in the USA was a dicult process, each
family eventually found living arrangements as well as sucient employment to provide for
their children and meet remittance obligations. At the time of the interviews, all but two
participants were employed. Overall, participants viewed coming to the USA as a signicant
achievement, whether personally or in terms of providing better opportunities for children.
This constituted an important aspect of participantsrationale for migrating, as illustrated
by a 42-year-old Sierra Leonean mans comment that If we cant do it, our children will do
it one day.In a similar vein, a 43-year-old Sierra Leonean man made the following
comment, Im like, retiring right now little by little from my ambitions ... now Im
focusing personally on how my kids can go to college.Participantsnarratives suggested
that life achievement is not viewed only in terms of career success. A 50-year-old
Mauritanian father reported, For us Africans, to live, build a family, and the children
you raise, thats a mans objective.In this sense, although these participants might not have
fullled their professional goals and aspirations to the fullest, they appear to consider
getting married, having a family for which one provides, and insuring a better future for
ones children as a form of personal success and achievement.
Several participants reported disillusionment about life in the USA. A few of them also
expressed regrets about having settled outside their home countries, where they might have
had better professional careers than in the USA. Diculties getting accustomed to the
stressful aspects of the American work-oriented lifestyle were also reported. Nevertheless,
no participant reported that they planned to move back to their home country and make
a life there. Those who reported that they hoped to one day move back to their home
country emphasized that they would do so only if the political and socioeconomic situation
improved. It is worth noting that most participants reported that they would prefer to live in
their home countries if the current situation changed, that is, if there was no corruption,
political instability, insecurity, and poverty, along with better access to education, health-
care, and basic resources.
For participants who experienced trauma, post-migration adversity was often contex-
tualized with respect to pre-migration adversity. In general, post-migration adversities were
regarded as less extreme in degree than pre-migration ones. First, compared to a host
country like the USA, the standard of living in the majority of West African nations is
extremely low. Illustratively, a 35-year-old woman from Sierra Leone reported that a major
dierence between the USA and her home country was that in the USA, when you work
you make money ... in my country you dont have any hope ... theres no job, theresno
business.Second, for individuals who experienced trauma in the context of war, civil
conict, or political unrest, post-migration adversities were regarded as benign in compar-
ison to pre-migration traumatic experiences and related living conditions. For example, one
family from Sierra Leone witnessed the killing of family and community members and then
they were separated for ve years, during which the mother and youngest child were
captured by paramilitary forces and forced to work. After two (of the ve) years in
a refugee camp, the husband learned that they were not dead, and they were reunited in
the USA, where he had sought asylum. In New York, gangs at school harassed the son, and
later the father and son were assaulted at home. This resulted in the son being hospitalized,
legal action against the perpetrators, and the family being moved to a shelter for temporary
protection. Throughout the narrative, both spouses compared the stress in response to post-
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migration adversity favorably to that resulting from the pre-migration trauma. Post-
migration events, such as gang violence, were considered benign in comparison to situations
experienced pre-migration, such as when one cannot turn to the police or the justice system
for help and protection. In the wifes words, in our country they attack everybody ...
innocent, no innocent, its attack ... this [gang violence] was no issue for my son.It is
worth noting that although violence experienced or witnessed in the USA may be consid-
ered as being of a lesser extent, hence less impactful, than pre-migration traumatic events
and situations, it is likely that at least in some cases community violence may act as
a reminder of pre-migration threat. In support of this, a participant living in a high-crime
neighborhood in New York reported that hearing gunshots at night reminded her of war in
her home country.
Except in reference to children and parenting, only two participants made explicit
mentions of diculties that could be linked to acculturation. These two participants
discussed post-migration diculties generally experienced by immigrants in abstract
terms: discrimination against foreigners; xenophobia. All participants reported that living
in the USA did not aect their sense of identity or impact their personality in major ways.
Overall, participants expressed that they considered themselves Africans and lived and acted
according to African culture and values as much as life in the USA allowed for it. Apart from
professional interactions, since their arrival most participants had evolved almost exclu-
sively within African immigrant communities, either of their own ethnic group or other
African ethnic groups. All participants reported that they socialized mostly along ethnic
lines, such as having only African friends or going to social gatherings attended by other
Africans only. Participants did not express a wish to integrate into mainstream American
culture other than professionally or academically. This did not appear to be experienced as
social isolation or as a source of distress, as integration into mainstream American culture
did not appear to be considered a necessity other than for practical aspects, such as
employment, healthcare, and childrens education. When participants expressed frustration
related to being an immigrant in the USA, they referred primarily to diculties related to
nding decent employment or discrimination within work settings (e.g., having to accept
lower salaries than their American counterparts).
When asked to discuss their current lives, beside the post-migration adversities men-
tioned earlier, participants also reported many positive aspects of their lives in the USA.
Most reported being relatively content to live in a country where one can work and make
enough money to provide for ones family in the USA and back home. Moreover, partici-
pants reported feeling grateful for being safe, free, and having their basic needs met. While
more than half the participants did not have any formal schooling, living in the USA was
viewed as an opportunity to improve the status of their families, since their children were
getting a better education that would translate into opportunities for the future. As put by
the Sierra Leonean participant whose family story was recounted earlier, emigrating to the
USA meant not only feeling safe and free, but also feeling hopeful for the future. Once he
had brought his wife and children to the USA, he stopped constantly worrying and started
thinking about building a life.
Lastly, religiosity was a salient theme in participantsnarratives. When asked about how
he dealt with adversities, a 43-year-old Sierra Leonean man explained that In my religion,
we have a duty to hope ...so I never lose hope.Most participants repeatedly thanked God
for their fortunes (e.g., being alive, being safe, having made it to the USA). Additionally,
being a member of a religious community seemed to safeguard against social isolation, as
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evidenced in the following exchange between an interviewer and a 57-year-old
Liberian man:
Interviewer: Do you have a good support group of friends and family ... or do you feel very
alone?
Participant: No, no, Im not, were not alone ...the people we have, meet at the mosque
together, we learn together, we pray together ... live together.
Cultural Continuity and Change in Spousal Relations
Our study was particularly concerned with the impact of migration on relations between
spouses. Whereas in an initial statement most participants reported little to no change in the
nature of their relationships with their spouses (e.g., no,”“only a little bit,”“not very
much,”“no big dierences), their narratives reected a couple of relevant post-migration
gender role shifts. The few who explicitly reported changes in the nature of their relation-
ships reported that living in the USA had resulted in more freedom as a couple and stronger
bonds with their spouses because of distance from extended family. The 50-year-old
Mauritanian man explained: In Africa, households are large ... because there is the
brother, half-brother, cousin, aunt, and so on; there is everybody, so conicts become
more acute.For this participant, African couples living in the USA have more freedom
because there is less inuence of the family. Decreased involvement of extended family
members may also result in having to rely and depend on spouses more, whether emotion-
ally, nancially, or logistically. A 49-year-old Sierra Leonean man reported, Here, you are
alone, so you are much closer and you understand each other.Additionally, struggling
together to surmount pre- and post-migration adversities was also reported as having
strengthened spousal relationships. The most pervasive shifts in family- and household-
related behaviors concerned traditional gender norms related to nancing. As reported by
participants, in many African societies most women do not work and are responsible for
taking care of children and housework, whereas men are responsible for providing nan-
cially for the family. Although it is not uncommon for women to work in Africa, their
earnings are for them to buy small things for themselves or their children. Among partici-
pants, all husbands worked in their home countries, while only one wife worked. Once in the
USA, all wives eventually worked part or full time.
All but two couples reported that they currently shared household nancial responsi-
bilities. In one Guinean couple, only the husband did not work in the USA, and this was due
to physical disability, so his wife was the sole provider. When asked about whether this
impacted his role as a spouse or father, he responded that it did not because his wife gave
him her earnings for him to act as if these were his own. This suggests that, in this couples
case, cultural norms shaped the paternal position around economic provisions, as exempli-
ed in the following comment by the 42-year-old Sierra Leonean participant: In our
tradition, if you are married, it means you are capable of doing stufor your family. If
you cant do anything for them, its a disgrace for you; its a disgrace for your family.This
participant recounted how, even in the face of his wifes employment and his ongoing
struggles to ensure nancial income for his family both in the USA and in his home country,
his wife continued to preserve his paternal role: If I bring ten dollar, she will accept it. Shell
take it to be a million. She knows that, yes, my husband is doing something he usually do
before when were back home.In this case, while factually performing cultural changes in
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gender role division pertaining to nancial responsibilities, the wife is promoting cultural
continuity in gender role division by symbolically restoring the paternal role of economic
provision. In contrast, a 39-year-old man from Ivory Coast complained that, in line with
traditional norms, his wife did not share her earnings with him but expected him to share
his with her. Although he appeared to be in favor of the American way of sharing nancial
responsibilities for the household, he nonetheless accepted his wifes ways in order to avoid
spousal conict.
In terms of nonnancial decisions, all couples reported that both spouses were involved
in decision-making and that, when a decision had to be made, it was discussed and
addressed together as a couple. Only two participants both men reported that making
decisions together constituted a dierence from pre-migration gender roles. One partici-
pant attributed this dierence to the fact that, in his home country, husbands usually
consulted elder family members instead of wives concerning such issues. Another partici-
pant mentioned that, since he and his wife had immigrated to the USA, he had come to
respect and seek her opinion more than before. He related this directly to sharing more
responsibilities, as life in the USA entailed relying and counting on each other more than
back home. Most couples reported that husband-wife disagreements were dealt with
through discussion, not conict. Two instances of overt spousal conict were reported.
One couple and one man divorced from his rst wife reported past post-migration spousal
conict. In both cases, conict was related to polygamy, specically the rst wife not
accepting the second marriage. Note that although two participants reported
having second wives in home countries, post-migration none reported ever living in the
same home with more than one wife.
Overall, participantsnarratives reected collaborative spousal relationships within
somewhat adapted but still traditional gender roles. The 50-year-old Mauritanian commen-
ted, Its with reason that one builds a family ...if you want to have a family for a long time,
you must follow reason, not the heart.In this sense, it appears that spousal harmony was
considered in terms of the fullment of culturally prescribed roles. This aspect of African
culture was omnipresent in participantsnarratives, as all reported that building and
providing for a family was a core life aspiration.
Tradition and Flexibility in Parenting and Parent-Child Relations
Similar to reports of spousal relations, all participants reported that their parenting style had
not changed much post-migration, nor was it inuenced by American culture. Both female
and male participants reported that they had control over their children, who were reported
to be obedient, polite, and respectful of adult authority. Although most participants
reported no instances of parent-child conict or problems, a few complained that
American norms contradict African parenting norms concerning corporal punishment.
There were no explicit reports of the practice, but some felt that American laws prevented
them from raising their children as they saw t, and they worried that this could have
negative consequences on their childrens overall upbringing. In any case, these participants
reported refraining from using corporal punishment because of fear that their children
could call the police or child welfare authorities.
Several participants explained that they understood parenting before becoming parents
because of collective parenting practices within extended families and communities. One
43-year-old Mauritanian woman explained:
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We dont have to learn this ...we dont question ourselves as much as Westerners ...for us,
being a parent comes naturally because, in Africa, even if youre not a father or a mother you
often live with family; there are nieces, there are nephews, we have authority over these
children, we raise them ... so the idea of ones responsibility to raise ones child is already
within ourselves; its natural ... automatic.
In a similar vein, her husband, the 50-year-old Mauritanian, appeared surprised when asked
whether being separated from his children for seven months had impacted his role as
a father: Me? No! Its a question of mindset; even if theyre not here, you are the father;
there is no rupture.Echoing this comment, when narrating his reunication with his
2-year-old daughter after almost 2 years of separation, a 49-year-old Sierra Leonean man
reported that, after some initial distance, everything started going back to natural, to
a natural place.
Another fundamental aspect of traditional African parenting in participantsnarratives
concerned parentslived experience of responsibility to instill their cultural values in their
children. All participants reported that they spoke their native language at home and that
this was related to values. The 50-year-old Mauritanian man:
Language is the vehicle of values ... When you are in your home country, you know that
your child is going to evolve in a society that is yours and will dene himself, his identity is
preserved, which is not the case here.
His worry as a parent was that his children would lose what is most essential, their roots.
Other participants also reported this type of concern and mentioned that they wanted to
prevent their children from being negatively inuenced by American culture and by
disreputable youths from their neighborhood or school. Several participants were critical
of American family dynamics, which were perceived as reecting either neglect or children
being treated as kings.Additionally, all participants reported being practising Muslims
whose values were at times at odds with secular American ones. In this regard, they
expressed that promoting Muslim principles, such as premarital celibacy, abstention from
alcohol and other drugs, and reverence for elders were eective in keeping children on the
right path.Most participants reported that their children had attended Koranic school on
a weekly basis at some point post-migration, and several parents mentioned that they
prayed most prayers together as a family. The 50-year-old Mauritanian man mentioned
that, in his opinion, family crises often result from a lack of spiritual connectionbetween
parents and children.
Another manner in which participants reported keeping their children from falling
prey to negative inuences was by monitoring them closely. All participants reported
that, regardless of their age, their children were not permitted to hang out outside
or with kids from the neighborhood.On school days, children were expected to
come straight home from school. Extracurricular activities without trusted adult
supervision were not allowed. In some cases, the only friends that parents tolerated
were African youths living in the same buildings. Participants often lamented the lack
of collective monitoring in the USA. As the 43-year-old Mauritanian woman
explained: In Africa we dont say that one person raises a child, itsthevillagethat
raises the child.That is, in Africa parents can count on the fact that, when children
are outside, community members will look after them and discipline them if neces-
sary. Because of a perceived lack of community supervision in US neighborhoods,
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participants appeared to monitor their children more closely than they would in their
home country. Note that living in poor neighborhoods with high crime rates may also
account for participantsgeneral sentiment of unsafety and the resulting need for
increased child monitoring. Some parents also expressed concerns about not being
able to dedicate enough time to their childrens proper upbringing due to work
schedules. Concerned that their adolescent son was not doing well and misbehaved
at school, one family decided to send him back to Ivory Coast so that he could be
raised properly ... the African wayby family members and then come back to the
USA to pursue higher education.
Overall, participants reported that their children were well adjusted both at home
and at school. Except in one case, participants reported no instances of parent-child
conict, nor did they report psychological, emotional, or behavioral disturbances in
their children. Participants all reported receiving positive feedback from teachers
informing them that their children exhibited good behavior and performed well
academically. Even the children who came to the USA not speaking English adjusted
relatively quickly. No child was reported to have repeated a class or received special
education services. Although almost half the participants did not get formal schooling
growing up, all reported that making sure that their children did well in school was
one of the most important aspects of their role as parents. Furthermore, childrens
academic achievements were viewed as a personal success for parents, as illustrated by
the Sierra Leonean mans comment that if we cantdoit,ourchildrenwilldoit
one day.Here, the participant was referring to the fact that, although he did not
fulll his hopes for a successful career, his consolation was that his children would do
so, indicating how refugee childrens educational trajectories may operate as vehicles
of hope in parental migration histories.
One last element that emerged from participantsnarratives is that all those who
experienced trauma in their home country reported adhering to a silencing or avoidant
pattern of trauma-communication within parent-child relationships. Here, parents
accounted for this communicative pattern on the grounds of the rationale that they did
not want their children to have negative views of their home countries, potentially as a way
to instill cultural connectedness in children. Relatedly, participants expressed their empha-
sis on sharing stories about the positive aspects of their home countries and cultures. For
example, the 50-year-old Mauritanian man reported that
Talking about your experiences to your children is a negative thing to do ... if you tell her,
she will hate all of Mauritania, everything that is there; she will never go back there ...so its
a question of image.
A 36-year-old Guinean woman reported:
I really dont want tell these things my kids because I do not want to preach hatred or anger.
If I tell them about what happened, they could get pretty angry and it could lead into
revenge ... I dont want them to have hatred in them ... because if you do something to
someones mother or father, it becomes like a grudge and it builds up.
These quotations suggest that avoiding instilling anger or revenge in children is not only
related to preserving a positive image of the familys home country but may also reect an
attempt to avoid the repetition of violence in childrens future trajectories.
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Discussion
Multilevel Sources of Resilience and Coping within Family Relationships
In order to identify, explain, and understand the various sources of resilience and coping
strategies reected in our ndings, we propose a multidimensional approach. Drawing from
the interactive homeostasis [18] and ecological [19] models of resilience, we shift beyond an
individualized notion of resilience towards a focus on the dynamics of coping within family
and community relationships. Here, resilience is conceptualized as the result of complex
interactions between individual and interpersonal processes, cultural understandings and
strategies, and the familys broader context and interactions with cultural communities and
social institutions.
Participantsmigration narratives did not reect traditional trauma and adversity
models contending that individuals who experienced trauma or adversity are more vulner-
able to subsequent stressors [11, 12, 34] and are at greater risk for negative individual and
family outcomes [7, 8, 14]. Rather than increased spousal conict, narratives reected
stability, cooperation, and support. Rather than family dysfunction, narratives reected
coherence, cohesion, and nonconicted parent-child relations. Rather than less eective
parenting, narratives reected consistency, active supervision and monitoring, and control
over childrens behavior. Rather than depressive or anxiety symptoms causing ineective
parenting, participants exhibited agency in their ability to provide for their children and
actively protect them from perceived negative inuences.
Interestingly, even participants who were former clients at a mental health clinic did not
make specic mentions of past or current psychiatric symptoms. Although past or current
psychological symptoms were certainly present in some cases, based on participants
narratives these appear to have had limited impacts on functioning in major life domains
such as work, family, or community engagement. While it is possible that the underreport-
ing of symptoms reected cultural attitudes or stigma related to mental health and sympto-
matology [35], perhaps the impact of psychological disturbances on functioning is mitigated
when these are not a salient aspect of the meaning-making of lived experiences. Similar to
what emerged from our participantsnarratives, in a group of Rwandan war survivors who
scored high on PTSD checklists, a majority were nonetheless interested in activities such as
work or play, felt that they were able to do things as well as before the war, felt that their
future seemed good, and felt able to protect family or self [27].
Traditional trauma approaches focusing on symptomatology often overlook the fact that
the presence of trauma-related symptoms does not necessarily imply impaired capacity to
function appropriately in major life domains [27, 36]. Also often ignored is the fact that
normative modes of coping with trauma and adversity may dier from one culture to
another. Accordingly, Western-designed trauma models may have limited applicability
among non-Western populations. It is with these counter-theoretical observations that we
present our family resilience framework.
Cultural continuity In most traditional African cultures, life revolves around family. Ones
primary life goals are, rst, to maintain strong family connections and, second, to build
a family to fulll ones role as a good spouse and parent. Familistic cultural values were
reected in participantscontinued eorts to promote and preserve healthy family relations
in the face of adversities. These eorts towards consistency in parenting and spousal
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relationships may help preserve family cohesion, which in turn may promote resilience in
family members. Research shows that parenting practices may mediate child adjustment
following trauma exposure and adversity [2022]. Similarly, healthy social interactions
within families have been linked to better post-trauma adjustment and resilience for both
parents and children [20]. Family-level models of resilience propose that interactional
processes such as parental coherence, collaboration, competence, and condence are vital
aspects of family-level coping strategies and adaptive outcomes in contexts of trauma and
adversity [21, 24].
In our sample, familism was not only reected in the values espoused by participants but
also in remittance responsibilities and child fostering. These transnational behaviors are
likely to both reect and reinforce cultural continuity through practical connections with
extended family. Both practices not only support culturally prescribed forms of collective
caretaking but may also buer against the grief over the loss of frequent extended family
interactions. Remittance responsibilities allow for continued involvement in ones extended
family life and, for some, increased prestige within family systems. Most participants
reported having used child fostering that is, sending children to live with family members
in home countries at some point pre- or post-migration in order to transmit traditional
values as well as to provide time to establish nancial security in the USA. Child fostering is
a culturally prescribed practice not uncommon in immigrant communities worldwide. It
helps maintain strong extended family connections and serves multiple protective purposes,
such as nancial security, discipline, and cultural socialization [37]. Besides promoting
cultural continuity, pre-migration exposure to child fostering may have better prepared
participants to cope with nuclear family separation during migration. In support of this,
except in cases where participants did not know the whereabouts of their children and
spouses, it was reported that separation from ones spouse and/or children had little or no
impact on spousal or parent-child relations.
We propose that the maintenance of native cultural values and norms that prescribe the
coherence of spousal and family relations constitute a source of resilience against the
negative impact of pre- and post-migration adversities on family functioning, weaving
threads of continuity into life histories aected by loss and exile. Even in the face of
considerable external stressors, participants strove to maintain consistency in their spousal
and parenting roles. Cultural continuity in the form of parents instilling traditional African
family values in their children may serve to buer against the potentially negative impact of
parent-child acculturation dissonance and promote family cohesion and connectedness.
Further, cultural continuity in spousal relationships was reected by adherence to tradi-
tional African paternalistic values and norms prescribing gender roles and family household
organization, with some adjustments when necessary. Most couples reported little or no
inuence of the host country or culture on the core nature of their relationship. Cultural
continuity in the form of the maintenance of culturally prescribed gender roles within the
couple may constitute a buer against post-migration spousal discord. When gender role
shifts are necessary (e.g., division of nancial responsibilities), these are negotiated in a way
that symbolically preserves culturally prescribed gender roles. Last, parentsstrong adher-
ence to traditional African values, as opposed to adopting American ones, may not only
buer against individual acculturative stress but also provide some sense of control while
adjusting to radically foreign host country settings.
Although participants strove to maintain cultural continuity at both family and com-
munity levels, family relationships reected some exibility to US norms in order to
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accommodate cultural, nancial, and legal realities. These adaptations were most obvious
when monitoring children and spousal relationships. In most traditional collectivist socie-
ties, monitoring and disciplining children occurs at the community level, which is largely
absent in most US communities. West African parentsincreased monitoring of children
can thus be viewed as a strategy to counter this dierence. Another shift in parenting
consisted in not resorting to corporal punishment, a disciplinary practice considered
eective yet abandoned to comply with US child welfare laws. Gender role shifts in nancial
responsibilities among couples represented another necessary post-migration acculturative
adaptation, where two earners are almost always necessary within households. Shifting
cultural practices were also evident in the abandonment of polygamous living arrangements
to comply with US law. While these changes in family functioning were considered adaptive
in that they were necessary to meet the demands of life in the host society, participants
emphasized their simultaneous adherence to and reliance upon traditional cultural values
and norms.
Collectivism A source of resilience related to cultural continuity was the maintenance of
traditional collectivism within community relationships. This was most obvious in partici-
pantsnarratives immediately following arrival, when many participants reported relying on
other African immigrants. Panethnic solidarity is common among members of the African
diaspora, and this was reected in the current narratives in practical terms such as nding
housing and nancial support for the newly arrived. Negative outcomes related to the
impact of individual acculturative processes may not have been reected in participants
narratives because they were mitigated by the fact that they were immersed in communities
where social life revolves around shared African cultural values, norms, and habits.
The collectivism of African immigrant communities stands in sharp contrast with the
perceived lack of a sense of community in US society. In this sense, the emphasis on
collectivism in immigrant communities may have lessened the cultural shock of individu-
alist American culture. This is not to suggest that participants never faced negative experi-
ences related to acculturation, but rather that such experiences were not experienced as
impactful enough to be directly incorporated into the meaning-making of post-migration
experiences. It is possible that the negative impact of acculturation is decreased when
acculturative experiences are not considered an important aspect of ones lived experiences
in host countries. Although perhaps problematic in other domains, a certain degree of
cultural isolation may be protective. Note that cultural isolation is not analogous to margin-
alization. All participants made the informed decision to settle in African immigrant
communities. Whether voluntary or not, this type of regrouping along ethnic lines is rather
common in the metropolitan USA. Historically, most immigrant groups have regrouped
into close-knit communities living in distinct city areas. It is also not uncommon for various
conservative groups (e.g., Hasidic Jews) to promote what Berry [38] dened as separation
(i.e., low host culture but high native culture identication).
Religiosity Also related to cultural continuity is religiosity. For all participants, religion was
a core aspect of family and community life, thus promoting cultural continuity. Religious
faith was also used to bolster individual wellbeing through meaning-making. Many
Muslims hold the belief that God has a plan for everyone and that therefore individuals
are not responsible for misfortunes. Positing such an external locus of control for distress
may mitigate the impact of adversity, constituting an eective coping mechanism. Religious
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coping may be especially relevant among disadvantaged or impoverished populations that
lack access to mental health services [39]. A growing body of research shows that religious
coping, spirituality, and faith-based approaches to dealing with adversity promote resilience
by alleviating individual-level distress through ritual, helping to uncover meaning and
clarify identity, and improving connections with others through community [39].
Downward comparison All participants experienced chronic pre-migration adversity (e.g.,
poverty, insecurity, lack of opportunities), and most were exposed to traumatic events (e.g.,
war, persecution, captivity, sexual violence). However, rather than increasing vulnerability
to subsequent adversity, the pre-migration experiences related in participantsnarratives
seemed to operate as a source for coping with post-migration adversities. Participants
narratives did not reect the assumption that prior adversities lead to more psychologically
impactful adversities (i.e., cumulative eect). Post-migration adversities were often con-
trasted with pre-migration adversities in countering interviewersexpressions of sympathy.
If taken at face value, this suggests that individuals who experience high degrees of pre-
migration adversity from chronic poverty to unreliable justice systems and exposure to
trauma may experience post-migration adversities as relatively mild and surmountable.
An important aspect of pre- and post-migration adversities often overlooked in the
empirical literature is the fact that post-migration adversities are often less extreme in
degree than pre-migration ones. Compared to a host country like the USA, the standard of
living in the majority of West African countries is extremely low. Exposure to chronic
adversity may promote the development of eective coping strategies, which in turn may
foster a higher capacity for resilience in the face of subsequent exposure to adversity.
Although in the current study downward comparison should be contextualized in the
dierences between West African countries and the USA, the idea that previous exposure
to adversity might protect against the eects of later adversity has been noted in the
psychological literature [40, 41].
A specic way of coping with losses related to migration consisted of comparing the
educational and professional opportunities one had in ones home country with the
opportunities that one was able to provide to ones children post-migration in the host
country. In this sense, actively making sure that ones children are provided with better
educational opportunities may foster resilience in parents, who, instead of dwelling on the
fact that they have limited opportunities in terms of personal professional achievements,
nd solace in the fact that their children have better ones. In support of this, using the same
data set as the current study, Roubeni et al. [42] examined the connections between
experiences of loss and educational aspirations for children. They proposed that West
African parents cope with the loss of hope for successful educational and social trajectories
they initially had for themselves by projecting their aspirations onto their children.
Relatedly, Walsh [24] proposed that well-functioning families have an evolutionary sense
of time and becoming(p. 6), and tend to contextualize and normalize distress as a way to
enlarge family perspectives on the future.
Lastly, both a strength and a limitation of narrative inquiry is its emphasis on under-
standing storytellerspoints of view [32] rather than on the theoretical or clinical perspec-
tives of the researchers. As a result, this methodological approach may not generate the type
of scientic cause-and-eect data that can readily be translated into evidence-based treat-
ments. A further limitation of the present study is that, by focusing on participantsown
perspectives, the researchers did not account for the presence of biases related to social
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desirability vis-à-vis the research context or broader host society. It is also possible that
aspects of participantsnarratives reected the development of an idealized post-migration
narrative within the participantscultural communities, which in turn could have inu-
enced the meaning-making of pre- and post-migration experiences. Our ndings concern-
ing resilience and cultural continuity should not be interpreted as minimizing problems
associated with forced migration, nor do we wish to give the impression that all family
narratives are uniform. Rather, we wish to highlight themes and sources of resilience that
emerged across narratives, narratives that are rarely conveyed in the clinical literature on
refugees.
Conclusion
We propose that, as sources of resilience, cultural continuity, collectivism, religiosity,
adaptive exibility, and downward comparison constitute sociocultural protective factors
that may buer against the negative impacts of pre- and post-migration trauma and
adversity. Clinical research and practice involving refugee populations should identify
and attend to these protective factors with the aim of fostering the full range of potential
sources of resilience available to individuals and families. Although critical to modern
resilience theory, culture-specic sources of resilience have received little empirical atten-
tion. In clinical practice, rather than being fostered, culture-specic sources of resilience are
often ignored, as most models informing intervention and treatment favor etic approaches
to trauma based on a biomedical approach to psychopathology, individualism, and Western
diagnostic systems. Identifying potential sociocultural sources of resilience may lead to
more culturally sensitive and more eective approaches to psychological healing.
Given the likelihood that they experienced pre-migration trauma or chronic adversity,
refugee populations are assumed to be at higher risk of developing mental health problems
and related functional impairments. However, in a majority of cases, exposure to trauma or
chronic adversity does not lead to psychopathology [13, 36]. Despite this, the primary focus
of traditional trauma models and related clinical interventions is to predict, assess for, and
treat trauma-related negative psychosocial outcomes. Taken together, these perspectives
may lead unseasoned clinicians who work with refugee populations to both overlook
resilience processes and overpathologize their clients while ignoring their current stressors,
concerns, aspirations [43], and, in particular, unique meaning-making. Therapeutic
approaches that involve assessing and promoting sources of resilience are likely to be
more eective than those focusing primarily on symptom reduction. Importantly, when
working with refugee clients who have strong aliative values, clinicians should adopt
frameworks that assess and promote family- and community-level modes of coping and
resilience [24].
As indicated by our ndings, sources of resilience may be culturally negotiated. For this
reason, certain taken-for-granted therapeutic approaches may be at odds with culturally
normative ways of coping with trauma and adversity. For instance, all participants reported
that focusing on the present and future while actively avoiding recalls of past trauma-related
memories constituted a mode of coping with past trauma. Echoing this nding, it has been
reported that both Mozambican and Ethiopian refugees described active forgettingas their
normative mode of coping with past adversity [27]. This culturally prescribed coping
strategy contrasts sharply with the familiar idea in Western psychology that recovery
from trauma and adverse events implicates talking about and working throughpast
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diculties [27]. Implementing this approach with African refugees seeking mental health
services may not only antagonize them but also deprive them of a sense of agency in their
own recovery process. When providing mental health services to this population, strength-
based approaches that promote wellbeing by meeting clients where they are, whether they
want to focus on past or current stressors or both, are likely to be not only more eective but
also more empowering. In other words, treating trauma-related mental illness among
refugees should emphasize their agency in choosing whether they want treatment to focus
on past trauma, current stressors, concerns, and/or aspirations.
To conclude, we urge clinicians and other individuals who work with refugee popula-
tions to adopt emic stances with the aim of promoting the utmost respect for both
individual meaning-making and sociocultural modes of coping. This is not to be achieved
simply through knowledge or understandingof culturally diverse paradigms. Rather, as
much as possible, these paradigms should be incorporated into clinical and other psycho-
social treatments and interventions. When working with non-Western refugee populations,
a failure to consider the fact that all cultural traditions have their own frames of reference
can potentially lead to unintended harm or further victimization.
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68 Refugee Family Relationships
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