We live in a time of unprecedented global migration. In some situations, families willingly choose to migrate with hopes of better futures in other countries or parts of the world. Others reluctantly choose migration when their ability to support basic necessities for their family members is extremely difficult and they perceive that other countries, more robust economies, offer better opportunities to achieve their goals. Still others are forced to migrate due to war, internal conflict, political or religious persecution, or natural disasters that threaten the health and safety of family members. Regardless of the impetus, families are on the move globally, a trend that will continue in the foreseeable future.
The United States is a destination for many migrants, some from countries on the same continent but many from countries from distant lands. Throughout the migration experience, they face unique family dynamics and life experiences during the transitions of displacement, relocation, and resettlement. They encounter significant challenges ranging from language, economics, and educational barriers to exposure to stress and discrimination, each of which influences their parenting practices, family relationships, and their ability to cope and provide mutual support. Immigrant and refugee families also demonstrate remarkable resilience through these processes; there are many lessons to be learned from their strengths.
Although a range of human service agencies in both public and private sectors have attempted to address immigrant and refugee mental health and other family needs, their effectiveness is frequently limited by a lack of knowledge and expertise on the part of professionals who have not had adequate training regarding the realities of these families. Family scientists have tremendous potential to contribute to the knowledge base about immigrant and refugee communities and to develop/adapt culturally and contextually relevant family theories, research methodologies, and clinical and psychoeducational interventions that fit their family needs.
Why write this book?
The idea for this book grew out of the need to identify a textbook that two of the book’s editors, Liz Wieling and Catherine Solheim, could use in a graduate course titled “Global Perspectives on Immigrant and Refugee Families”. Enrolled students, developing family scholars with an interest in immigrant and refugee displacement and resettlement processes, included family therapists currently working with immigrant and refugee families and emerging family scientists conducting research on the experiences of immigrant and refugee families. Several were recent immigrants themselves.
Our search identified several books that documented individual or group experiences of immigrant groups (such as Immigrant America: A Portrait), or that guided clinical practice with immigrants (such as Culturally Competent Practice with Immigrant and Refugee Children and Families and Social Work, Immigration and Asylum), but very few books addressed how families were faring in the process. One remarkable book, Refugee and Immigrant Family Voices, addressed the contexts that influence families based on interviews and first-person accounts. However, we were surprised to discover that there was no text that outlined current theoretical frameworks or synthesized research specific to immigrant and refugee families.
As a result, students in the course began to collaborate with us on a textbook that would address this need; our goal was to offer an interdisciplinary perspective on contemporary immigrant families across multiple domains – political, legal, economic, mental health, social and health disparities, and human rights. As the chapters began to emerge, we were delighted to invite Jaime Ballard, a doctoral student and family therapist, to join our collaborative editing team.After the textbook was published and used in classrooms, Lekie Dwanyen skillfully updated the content in 2019 for the 2nd edition.
Our connection to immigrants and refugees
Jaime: As a novice therapist, I began working with families who had experienced significant psychological trauma. It was powerful for me to see how they were coping and finding ways with their families to adjust and move forward. It made me curious about the best ways to support these families in the work they were doing. I then began to learn about refugee communities, who were finding ways with their families and their communities to cope and to move forward. Nothing in my life has been more inspiring.
Liz: I am a multiethnic woman with a White Euro-American father and a mixed heritage Brazilian mother. I grew up primarily in the Amazon region of Brazil speaking two languages and crossing many types of borders from an early age. I had a stable loving family, access to education, international travel, and exposure to families living in stark contrast from each other –both tremendously privileged and disadvantaged contexts. I began to understand that gender, race, and economic status were linked and had profound implications for one’s life experiences. My passion developed around working with populations that I perceived to be most disenfranchised in the world, namely those affected by war, organized violence, and persecution. A disproportionate number of these populations happen to be poor women and children living in war zones and displacement camps within their countries of origin or in resettlement countries. I am a family therapist and a prevention and intervention scholar currently working to develop parenting and family level evidence-based interventions for populations affected by traumatic stress. I work with interdisciplinary colleagues in post-conflict settings outside of the United States and with immigrant and refugee communities locally. My hope is that social change agents across multiple societal levels (e.g., community, academic, human rights, political) will continue to coalesce to develop stronger structures to support immigrant and refugee families with specific attention to mental and family relational health after resettlement.
Catherine: I am from a third-generation immigrant family; my grandfather came to this country from Norway as a teen-ager. Stories, food, and even some language of the ‘old country’ were a familiar part of my growing-up years. As an adult, I had the privilege of working for two years in Thailand. Though a sojourner rather than an immigrant in that country, I experienced the tremendous challenges associated with transitions to a new culture, a new language, and new systems, that offered me glimpses into what immigrants to my native country might face. Supporting my husband, a Thai national, as he adjusted to life in the United States, further developed my awareness of and empathy for the challenges and discrimination faced by immigrants. Subsequently, my teaching and research have been deeply informed by these personal experiences. I am passionate about conducting research and harnessing my privilege as a university scholar to support immigrant refugee families and inform social policies and programs that impact their transitions. I am also committed to equipping future family professionals, our university students, with the knowledge, intercultural skills, and compassion to serve these families in our communities.
Lekie: My interests in and commitment to working with immigrant and refugee families are directly influenced by personal and family history. Born during civil war in Liberia, my early life experiences were shaped by efforts to flee conflict in Liberia, relocation to nearby Côte d’Ivoire, and eventual resettlement to the United States. I am familiar with many experiences and demands associated with migration and resettlement, including but not limited to innumerable shifts in cultural norms and practices, structural changes at the family level, and the challenges of learning new environments. With my background in couple and family therapy and orientation to systemic and cultural lenses, I am invested in working with immigrant and refugee families to interrupt the deleterious effects of posttraumatic stress symptoms on child and family outcomes, while emphasizing coping and resilience across the lifespan.
The Purpose and Organization of the Book
As a whole, the book offers an important overview of transitions, challenges, and strengths of immigrant and refugee families as they adjust to a new country and culture. Each chapter utilizes a family systems perspective to synthesize relevant research and practice, concluding with directions for future research, policy, and/or practice. A “future directions” section offers suggestions for research as well as strategies that professionals can consider as they serve immigrant families. All chapters include a case study to help readers grapple with the realities of the immigration process for families. Discussion questions provide opportunities for critical thinking and deeper conversation about the issues that affect immigrant families.
This textbook was written with several audiences in mind. It is designed for students taking university classes in human sciences, social work, social policy, public health, and mental health, as well as for non-profit sector organizations, government agencies, and faith communities that serve immigrant and refugees. Students and community professionals alike can use this text to develop understanding of specific challenges facing immigrant and refugee families. Although the focus is primarily on the United States as the destination country, we believe that the research explored in this book can inform work with immigrant and refugee families who resettle in countries around the world. Regardless of geographic location, we hope to underscore how important it is for all of us to be engaged in research and practice with immigrant and refugee families.
This textbook is unique in its focus on families in context. Each immigrant family’s path is influenced by many situational and interrelated factors including: 1) individual health and motivation, 2) family values, traditions, cohesion, and conflict, and 3) systemic policies that influence immigrant admission and access to social benefits. The text is organized into three sections – Context, Family Dynamics Related to Stress, and Family Adaptation and Resilience.
Section I: Context. The first section describes the broad contexts that influence immigrant and refugee families during their journey to the United States. Chapter 1, Immigration Policy: Barriers and Opportunities for Families, describes the United States policies that determine who enters the country and how those immigrants are integrated, and then explores the impact of those policies on families. Chapter 2, From There to Here: The Journey of Refugee Families to the United States, explores the specific issues that refugees face. The authors identify the paths taken by refugee families seeking relatively safe environments to live and raise their children, including fleeing persecution, undergoing family separation, being admitted to the United States, and becoming accustomed to the new home. Chapter 3, Human Rights, provides a broad overview of what constitutes human rights. The authors describe several human rights issues that impact families including women and children’s rights, human trafficking, separation of families through deportation, and detention without trial.
Section II: Family Dynamics Related to Stress. The second section addresses family dynamics related to loss, stress, and psychological trauma. Chapter 4, Economic Well-Being in Refugee and Immigrant Families: Supports and Barriers, describes challenges immigrants face in their path to economic well-being, particularly in the areas of employment, access to health care and housing, and financial management skills and access. Chapter 5, Mental Health in Immigrant and Refugee Families, describes mental health challenges frequently shared by immigrant and refugee families, including loss, traumatic stress and PTSD, depression, and anxiety. The authors describe treatments and how they can be improved for immigrant and refugee families. Chapter 6, Intimate Partner Violence among Immigrants and Refugees, describes how cultures around the world view intimate partner violence. The authors identify some unique risks faced by immigrants who experience violence from their partners, such as unawareness of support, a lack of language- and culturally-appropriate services, fear of deportation, and economic dependency. Chapter 7, Substance Abuse within Immigrant and Refugee Communities, describes the prevalence and risk factors for substance use among immigrants, focusing on the specific role of the family.
Section III: Family Adaptation and Resilience. The third section addresses family dynamics related to resilience. Chapter 8, Resilience in Immigrant and Refugee Families, describes the immigrant paradox, or the tendency for immigrants to do better than United States-born individuals in health and educational outcomes. The authors identify immigrants’ family connections and values of education and work as protective factors that coexist with barriers that limit access to needed resources and opportunities. Chapter 9, Embracing a New Home: Resettlement Research and the Family, describes some of the common theories used in research on immigrant resettlement; the authors advocate for the usefulness of family theories to inform and frame future research.
The Format of the Book
We were delighted to partner with the University of Minnesota Libraries whose visionary leadership in the open access textbook movement is noteworthy. Publishing this free text online makes it available to a broader audience. We are especially excited that students, community professionals, and practitioners around the world will have access to this knowledge base. Professors and mental health care providers can tailor readings within the book to meet the needs of their courses or clients. An online format also allows us to respond to the ever-changing patterns and contexts of immigration to the United States. A print-based text would quickly become outdated. We are delighted to publish this text online so that it can be regularly updated to the current situation.
Our Hopes for the Impact of this Book
We believe that advancing scholarship about immigrant and refugee family processes is more relevant than ever as we face the largest refugee crisis in history – the diaspora of Syrians displaced throughout the world who are battling unprecedented rates of discrimination and hatred in a highly volatile global arena. On our own continent, escalating tensions and problematic policies abound regarding immigration across our southern border. The United States and the global community must develop and adopt a new understanding of the role of immigrant and refugee resettlement processes as an integral part of our economic sustainability, political stability, and indeed our collective humanity.
In her book The Middle of Everywhere: The World’s Refugees Come to Our Town, Mary Pipher writes: “When Europeans arrived on this continent, they blew it with the Native Americans. They plowed over them, taking as much as they could of their land and valuables, and respecting almost nothing about the native cultures. We have another chance with all these refugees [and immigrants]. People come here penniless but not cultureless. They bring us gifts. We can synthesize the best of our traditions with the best of theirs. We can teach and learn from each other to produce a better America. This time around, we can get things right.” (2002, p. 349).
We invite you as readers to grapple with the realities, the hopes, the strengths, and the challenges of immigrant and refugee families as you read this book. We hope it deepens your understanding of the lives of these families, sparks an interest in continuing to follow ever-changing global migration patterns, and develops and/or strengthens your commitment to supporting families whose life circumstances propel them to relocate, adjust, and thrive in their new homes.
Fong, R. (Eds.). (2003). Culturally Competent Practice with Immigrant and Refugee Children and Families. New York: Guilford Press.
Hayes, D., & Humphries, B. (Eds.). (2004). Social Work, Immigration and Asylum. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Pipher, M. (2002). The Middle of Everywhere: The World’s Refugees Come to Our Town. Mariner Books: Boston, MA.
Portes, A., & Rumbaut, R. G. (2006). Immigrant America: A Portrait (3rd ed.) Berkely, CA: University of California Press.
Quintero, E. (2009). Refugee and Immigrant Family Voices. Boston: Sense Publishers
Refugee Council USA. (2013). Refugee Admissions Figures. Retrieved from: https://www.sensepublishers.com/media/879-refugee-and-immigrant-family-voices.pdf