Counselling Refugees: Risk and Resilience

Psychological pain and emotional distress might be understood to be elements of a legacy by people who, in the face of nonresponsiveness of the world around them, remain resolute in their determination that the trauma that they and others have gone through will not be for nothing—that things must change on account of what they have gone through. (White, 2011, pp. 126)

In 2010, Canada accepted 7,265 government assisted refugees and 4,833 privately sponsored refugees. According to UNICEF (2012), almost 90% of war victims are women and children. Over one million children have been killed in war zones and 20 million displaced to refugee or internally displaced person camps. According to Amnesty International (1996), children’s traumatic events include but are not limited to bombing, shelling, sniper-fire, rape and force to become child-soldiers. Many of these individuals will require counselling to help them with challenges common to pre-, trans-, and post-migration processes. Counsellors may expect to provide services to refugees, even when counselling refugees is not their main area of focus (Arthur et al., 2010). 

Seen as an intrinsic case example (Dujmic, 2012), heuristic inquiry (Djuraskovic & Arthur, 2009) and literature review, this article will offer a unique perspective on refugees’ lived experience and their acculturation struggles. Our research shows that refugees are not only capable of achieving social adjustments and psychological resiliency, but their route to recovery is multidimensional, supported by resilience and the constant creation and recreations of new meanings. The goal of this article is to inform how a socially responsible counselling process could assist refugees in the process of acculturation, identity reconstruction and a sense of belonging.

Who Are Refugees?

Defined by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a refugee is a person (child and adult) who is residing outside their country and cannot return due to a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, sexual orientation, or membership in a particular social group (UNCHOR, 2000). Refugees are one of the most traumatized and tortured (extended isolation, physical mutilation, slave labour and starvation, beatings and rapes, threats and mock executions) populations (UNESCO, WHO, 2011). A large number of refugees come to Canada from countries affected by civil and ethnic wars.

Civil war is fought between self-aware, defined groups that have organizational capacities to plan and carry out military operations in support of political goals (Brown, 2003, p.212).

Ethnic war is a product of ethnic intolerance that is unwilling to extend economic, political and social rights to another ethnic group living in the same or neighboring region or territory (Kunovic & Hodson, 1999). Refugees from those countries are not only abruptly uprooted, their whole country and social system ceases to exist as they know it.

As Alex, a 32 year old interviewee, said, “When I left Yugoslavia … the country was going through its darkest hours I believe … in its entire history so there wasn’t much freedom when I left, and then when I came here I was overwhelmed with the freedom that I found here.”

According to Porter & Haslam (2005), refugee experience alters life structure, individual life cycle development, and individual functioning.


The mental health of refugees has been a longstanding focus of mental health practitioners, including counsellors and psychologists (Bemak, Chung, & Pedersen, 2003). Clinical work with refugees has been mostly focused on exploring the effects of trauma on refugees’ post-migration adjustment, and the treatment of psychiatric disorders (Davidson, Murray, & Schweitzer, 2008).

War trauma is much more than exposure to a single stressful event. It is a long and enduring state of severe stress and uncertainty about future.

Current research supports findings that PTSD, depression, and other psychological problems are common among children and adults exposed to war trauma, but the same research is sometimes mistaken to indicate that war atrocities and consequent displacements are automatically associated with mental health problems (Peltonen et al., 2012).

Further, little attention has been directed to how the resettlement and subsequent acculturation affects refugees, their mental health, and subsequent adjustment. Refugees not only experience traumatic pre-migration events, but they also face significant trans-, and post-migration difficulties including a more complex acculturation, intergenerational conflict, familial disconnections, parenting issues, and family violence (Arthur, Merali, & Djuraskovic, 2010).


Significant family factors appearing to promote resilience, even in the presence of military conflict, are a secure attachment and positive connection between the child or adolescent and at least one caring parent/adult (Alvord & Grados, 2005; Everall et al., 2006; Friesen, 2007; Punamki, Qouta, Miller & El-Sarraj, 2011).

Interwoven with the role of family factors in child and adolescent resilience is the increasing recognition of the importance of family resilience and the reciprocal impact each has on the other (Benzies & Mychasiuk, 2009; Borden et al., 2010; Punamki, Qouta, Miller & El-Sarraj, 2011 ). Further, Glicken (2006) emphasized that the best manifestation of resilience is one’s personal coping ability. The coping process includes positive responses to extreme challenges and stressors, curiosity, perseverance, seeking comfort from another person, or protesting changing circumstances or stressors (Glicken 2006).

In contrast to North American individualism that promotes self-containment, autonomy, self-reliance and self-determination, the worldview of children and adults from collective cultures locates resilience in interpersonal, family or collective values and beliefs (Punamki, Qouta, Miller & El-Sarraj, 2011). Resilient refugees reported having a sense of continuity with their past and a fate shared with an entire community (Kays & Kane, 2004).

Acculturation and Identity Reconstruction

Acculturation refers to mutual changes in both migrants and the host society as the result of interaction. According to Berry (2002), acculturation is multidimensional and it is characterized by four main strategies: Assimilation; Separation; Marginalization; and Integration. Djuraskovic and Arthur’s (2009) study of former Yugoslavian refugees understood identity reconstruction as a self-reflective and ongoing process that is parallel with acculturation.

In the process of evaluating their sense of belonging, former Yugoslavian refugees worked through the experience of identity confusion and resistance against Canadian identity and integration (Djuraskovic & Arthur, 2009). Though integration was an outcome of identity development, the participants’ experiences did not show integration to be the healthiest strategy for successful adaptation. Instead, the shared experiences showed that acculturation and identity construction were two processes unique to each individual and open to change (Djuraskovic & Artur, 2009).

In Ema’s case (a 35 year old interviewee), she found that she could not move forward until she could go back home (four years after the war ended) and “see it with my own eyes, talk to my friends and neighbours, learn what happened to my parents…before I could take control of my life.” Her inability to visit her country of origin seemed to postpone both acculturation and identity reconstruction.

Sense of Belonging

Walton and Cohen (2007) found that in academic and professional settings, members of socially stigmatized groups are more uncertain of the quality of their social bonds and consequently, more sensitive to issues of social belonging (p.82).

According to Baumeister (2012), the motivation to form and sustain at least a minimum amount of social connection is one of the most powerful, universal, and influential human drives that shapes emotion, cognition, and behavior. One of the rare research projects that explored the experiences of former Yugoslavians, in this case, Bosnian Refugees currently living in United States, identified two major themes: “Belonging” and “Adapting” (Keys & Kane, 2004, p.809).

As identified in the study, “belonging” included the concept of cultural memory, identity and difference, empathy, reciprocity, and perfection of speech, while “adapting” focused on coping with transition, coping with memories of past and consequent losses, coping with accepting new culture and trying to fit into the world with an individualistic mindset (Kays & Kane, 2004).

Embedded in the former Yugoslavian refugees’ experience were states of culture shock, loneliness, psychic numbness, grief, nostalgia, and feeling of sadness, humiliation, inferiority, and feeling as if they belonged nowhere (Kays & Kane, 2004).

Concurrently, the refugees reported feeling relieved and safe after leaving behind the threat of death in their homes (Kays & Kane, 2004). Further, they felt grateful for their new freedom to hope for a better life and their restored ability to notice beauty, as well as feeling a sense of normalcy in their new lives (Kays & Kane, 2004, Djuraskovic & Arthur, 2009).

In contrast, a study that aimed to understand the sense of belonging and collective identity between Israelis and Palestinians in the United States found that these refugees organized their recollected collective memories around the conflict so that their identity “belonged to the conflict” (Chaitin, Awwad & Andriani, 2009, p.207). Perhaps the greatest threat to refugees in general is not the stress of belonging to the new culture, but a fear of belonging to none (Lee, 1988).

Socially Responsible Counselling

Due to the nature of refugee status, or a lack of it, refugees are often followed by a social stigma and they are often described as “damaged goods who are hunted by the horror they went through; pain, loss and inconsolable sorrow” (Matic, personal conversation, June 16, 2010). One may wonder whose fear is illustrated in this statement.

If counsellors remain silent, the stigmatization of human suffering continues to support a culture of marginalization and continuous isolation of the essential trait of humanity: Our ability to change.

Agger (2001) said that the characteristics of civil wars: Where atrocities were committed; Where neighbour fights neighbour; and Where relatives may be on different sides, have long lasting malevolent effects on generations to come. He goes further to say that “under these circumstances it is especially important that trauma is understood not as a medical or psychiatric condition, but as a reaction to an unimaginable betrayal of universal human ethics as expressed in the United Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child” (Agger, 2011, pp. 307).

When interviewing Ema, she had only one request and that was “do not butcher my lived experience.” Her statement graphically illustrates her fear of being analyzed as a rare specimen and labeled with something that further separates her from who she really is. It also reminds us that her life was already violated and she is not ready to let that happen again.

Socially responsible counselling practice values individual cultural and social context, personal identities, and the uniqueness of the lived experience of refugees. It creates a safe space in which context, as well as information is freely shared and meaning is created and co-created by the author of the story. When working with refugees, this fluidity is supported by mutual trust and respect as well as a counsellor’s willingness to be informed about current social and political events.

Collins and Arthur (2010, p.18) introduced a culture-infused lens that defines counselling as:

Conscious and purposeful infusion of cultural awareness and sensitivity into all aspects of the counselling process and all other roles assumed by the counsellor or psychologist.

Culture-infused counselling encourages counsellors to consider the potential influences of culture as central components within the lived experiences of both clients and counsellors. Such consideration advances the recognition of multiple personal, social, and systemic influences in the lives of all individuals, as well as the importance of multiple cultural influences in the provision of culturally-responsive counselling (Arthur & Collins, 2010).