Can resettled families hold strong and proud cultural identities while also enduring the adverse residual impacts of displacement in a new society that may replicate much of the oppression they hoped to leave behind? When immigrants and refugees first arrive in the United States, their unique status tends to be quite apparent. Customs and language set them apart (see the chapter on acculturation). They are likely to face many barriers to services, housing, and employment (see the immigration policy and economics chapters). Over time, however, families settle into new patterns in the new community. Individuals learn language and employment skills that allow them to promote their community’s interests. Families learn how to reach and/or modify their goals in the new country. Over time, they join with others to create community and may even establish organizations that address their needs.
So, when does someone stop being a refugee or an immigrant? Some individuals want to retain the label “immigrant” or “refugee”; it represents their struggles and resilience and has become a part of their cultural identity. Others do not want to be so labeled; it no longer represents their identity. They may reject the negative associations with the label, they may have moved beyond that initial identity, or they have found alternative meaningful ways to express who they are in the new country.
Consistent with our history of immigration, the United States continues to have families coming from all over the world who are beginning a new phase of life in their country of destination. As we conclude this textbook, we would like to offer some possible next steps as individuals and as professionals, to facilitate and support their journey.
How can we help as individuals?
While editing this textbook, I (Jaime) looked through hundreds of photos of displaced children and families. Some of these photos captured the strength and forward momentum of families. Others captured families in their most despairing or terrifying moments. It tore at my heart. I started to look at my toddler son, and to wonder what kind of help I would want others to offer him if we were suddenly displaced. Liz and Cathy have been working with immigrants and refugee families for over a decade and have shaped their scholarship and much of their personal identities around working in close collaboration with immigrant communities.
We feel what many people feel – an urge to help. If you want to find a way to support refugee or immigrant families, here are a few ideas:
- Volunteer with local organizations. Refugee Council USA maintains a directory of volunteer opportunities with organizations assisting refugees. Go to http://www.rcusa.org/volunteer. Volunteer opportunities can be involved (such as meeting weekly with refugees for several months and helping them with transportation, English practice, and job interview practice) or a much smaller commitment, such as spending an afternoon setting up furniture for a refugee’s new home. Volunteers are also needed to tutor English, math, basic computer and employment skills.
- Donate to organizations responding to humanitarian needs. One way to alleviate the refugee crisis is to donate money to the organizations providing for refugees’ basic needs. USAID.gov maintains lists of organizations in need of donations (for example, the list of organizations working with Syrian refugees: https://www.usaid.gov/crisis/syria). When considering which organization to donate to and how to donate, consider the guidelines for effective giving available at http://www.cidi.org.
- Connect with local immigrants and refugees. We can connect with the immigrants and refugees in our communities in every day ways. Try out a restaurant and try food from a part of the world that’s new to you. Ask the owners or staff about their food and culture. Attend a cultural festival in your area and learn about different customs. Many museums and government offices have events or exhibits that promote multicultural understanding. For example, the Minnesota History Museum has a “We are Hmong” exhibit that displays the political, social, and economic contributions the Hmong have made to Minnesota since their arrival several decades ago. The more connected we can become with another culture and people, the more understanding we can have.
Next Steps in Family Theory Approaches
When we (Liz and Cathy) first taught a graduate course on immigrants and refugee families a few years ago, we found that the research studies on immigrants and refugees were framed primarily within sociology, demography, and anthropology perspectives; these often missed the inclusion of a family perspective. This textbook provides a glimpse of the centrality and importance of understanding immigrants and refugees family experiences as part of the displacement and resettlement global discourse. Family cohesion and support is one of the strongest components of immigrant resilience (see chapter on immigrant resilience), and separation from family can be a profoundly distressing experience for immigrants and refugees (see chapter on mental health).
There are many conceptual frameworks and theories within family and social science fields that address the complexities of immigrant and refugee experiences. Ecological systems theory (and its adaptation – ecodevelopmental theory), biopsychosocial theory, family systems theory, family stress and coping theory, and historical trauma perspectives are all frameworks that highlight the role of the family during stressful transitions. Researchers who use these approaches to conceptualize research with immigrants and refugees will be better equipped to assess and address the role of the family in successfully transitioning to a new country.
Next Steps in Research
As immigrant and refugee groups develop their own capacity to process and lead research, they will be able to design studies that best fit the needs of their communities. As professionals, we can support this journey by using a collaborative research process. Involving local community members and leaders to participate in research design and execution strengthens the relevance of our research, and also builds research capacity within the community. Developing deep and sustainable collaboration across immigrant and refugee communities is also a critical part of raising our ethical standards of research.
We must incorporate multiple methodological approaches when appropriate and use culturally validated instruments. In some cases, we must create these instruments! As we described in the mental health and substance use chapters, much of the research with immigrants and refugees has not paid adequate attention to differences in cultural contexts and language. A survey that asks only about substance use in the past week, for example, will be heavily skewed in cultures where drinking occurs primarily during holiday weeks. As we choose what questions to ask in our research, we must review these questions with cultural informants and attempt to select or design culturally validated instruments.
In addition to these research processes, there are some key content areas that must be addressed in research on immigrant and refugee families. In this textbook, we were unable to fully address LGBT issues, the practice of religion, and changes across the lifecourse in immigrant and refugee families. We hope that future research will thoroughly address these areas.
Next Steps in Practice
As practitioners (whether in mental health therapy, financial counseling, substance abuse counseling, etc.), we should carefully consider the role of relationships and family in our clients’ lives. The client’s goals, supports, and struggles may be greatly influenced by family both living in the same room and/or living thousands of miles away. We can ask about the role of family in our clients’ mental health, financial choices and struggles, substance use habits, assimilation, and resilience. When feasible, we can incorporate Skype, Google hangouts, and phone conferencing to talk with family members and invoke or increase their support.
Next Steps in Advocacy
In the struggle to promote social equity and the successful integration of resettled communities, we must act bravely to combat social ignorance and discrimination, inadequate community infrastructures, ineffective governmental policies, and a range of complex global disparities that often create the very conditions for mass displacement. Advocacy for vulnerable peoples comes in endless forms and we believe we must work collectively to address them in order to bring about social change. We hope that in some way this book has affirmed, inspired, or motivated you to find your role/s in supporting the wellbeing of immigrant and refugee families.
We are excited to contribute our voices to the research, teaching, and practice scholarship related to immigrant and refugee family resettlement. As we stated in our introduction, we hope this book has deepened your understanding of the lives of these families, sparked an interest in continuing to follow ever-changing global migration patterns, and developed and/or strengthened your commitment to supporting families whose life circumstances propel them to relocate, adjust, and thrive in their new homes.