Seeking refuge: resilience in action!

Families who seek refuge from war are often described as traumatized. Let’s work together to make sure their resilience doesn’t go unnoticed.

Acknowledging burden is important. Appreciating resilience is at least equally vital.

Forced migration, or fleeing from war or persecution, takes strength and perseverance. When people are cast as “traumatized”, the strengths that help them cope with extreme adversity and navigate their way to safety tend to go under-appreciated.

It’s not just about war and loss.

Violence and sudden loss in home countries and during flight are rarely the sole cause of distress. The burden of “post-migration stressors” such as housing insecurity, family separation, changes in social status and family roles, intransparent policies and financial problems is often under-estimated. Over time, these stressors can wear down people’s natural ability to cope with the many challenges of achieving safety in a new culture and environment for themselves, and their families.

social connection is key to mental wellbeing

EMPHASIZING TRAUMA CAN HAVE A NEGATIVE SIDE EFFECT: While it elicits sympathy, it also attributes deficits that overshadows the many ways that people are doing their best to care well for themselves, and their loved ones. This can easily lead to an unintended power imbalance that undervalues people’s sense of control, self-efficacy and esteem.

The right help at the right time

Having arrived in relative safety, both adults and children can continue to experience a lot of distress, for example poor sleep and appetite, jumpiness or irritability, frequent tears or exhaustion. In many cases, these stress symptoms are all appropriate responses to the exertions of flight and resettlement. Under good-enough conditions, we can usually mobilize our natural abilities to stabilize and recover. Without enough opportunities to do so, stress symptoms can develop into mental health problems.

It would seem logical that psychological support is a priority. However, this is only part of the answer. Before the “stress load” of war, flight and resettlement takes a heavy toll on people’s health, there are many things that can lessen it. Reducing the burden of post-migration stressors is essential. Both with regard to good-enough conditions for recovery, and to the efficacy of psychological support.

Resilience depends on our environment

We all have a natural capacity for resilience – the ability to live through serious hardship without developing mental health problems. In order for this capacity to unfold, we need to be able to put it into action. And this is where our environment plays an important role.

How, when and where?

Here are a few aspects of environments that promote resilience. Think of the places where you live, work, learn and play. How well are these aspects covered?

  • Access to resources for a healthy and productive life, for example sufficiently safe housing and meaningful occupations.
  • Experiences of being in control of our lives, for example opportunities to make choices based on what is important to us.
  • Opportunities to be recognized for our skills and competencies, and to use them to contribute to our communities.
  • Social connections that reinforce our sense of belonging, self-esteem and value for others.
Resilience-friendly environments give us opportunities to tip the scale from stress-overload to healthy outcomes.


The individual strengths and gifts that each of us has to offer are part of a big picture. Their impact depends on how aware we are for each other’s strengths and gifts, and how well we work together. Appreciating each other’s contributions by helping each other find the right help at the right time creates an environment that promotes autonomy, resilience and wellbeing.


Prioritizing deficits is a natural human response to any kind of stressful situation. When it comes to helping each other through difficult times, we can make a point of widening our perception to include and strengthen what is otherwise often overlooked.

Putting intention into practice

In our interactions as individuals, we can practice including resilience by remembering to ask questions, rather acting on assumptions. For example:

  • By bringing your children to safety, you’ve already achieved so much. Now that you are here, what is most important to you when it comes to your family’s wellbeing?
  • With everything you’re coping with, finding your bearings and getting settled takes a lot of strength. What is helping you get yourself and your family through this? Even small, everyday things like playing together count!
  • What strengths do you have that will help you manage this challenging time?
  • What kind of external support would you find helpful?
cooperation in social work
An often underestimated ingredient for successful collaboration: appreciation for what others do better than ourselves!


As parts of a helper system that aims to support families, we can make a point of contributing to an environment that promotes wellbeing by prioritising cooperation.

Because we tend to focus on deficits under stress, it often goes against our instincts to invest time and energy beyond solutions to immediate problems. But the overall benefit is more than worthwhile if we go about it efficiently. Again, asking questions is key! Here are some examples:

  • How does each partner’s service aim to reduce post-migration stressors in families lives?
  • What do each of you do well and how can this support the other’s goals?
  • What specific problems or needs cannot be met by your service alone?
  • How can working together help fill this gap, and what changes or improvements will indicate that your cooperation is paying off?


Seeking refuge: resilience in action!

The word “trauma” is often used to emphasize the needs of families seeking refuge from war in their home countries. While it often elicits empathy and the desire to support and care for people, it also influences how we perceive each other.

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