Ethical and Religious Principles Inspiring New Approaches to U.S. Refugee Resettlement

By: Suzy Ismail

December 4, 2020

Responding to: Rethinking Religion and U.S. Refugee Resettlement

Ethical and Religious Principles Inspiring New Approaches to U.S. Refugee Resettlement

Recent U.S. policies of welcoming refugees and asylum seekers experienced deeply restrictive and exclusionary parameters. As we look towards positive change in refugee resettlement policy under the incoming Biden administration, we optimistically hope for more cultural and faith-based cognizance in the approach taken towards working with resettled refugees. While the secularization of the federal resettlement program focuses on addressing primarily physiological and safety or security needs throughout the process, research indicates that ignoring the impact of faith as a coping mechanism and emotional resilience tool in refugee recovery can negatively affect integration outcomes.

We optimistically hope for more cultural and faith-based cognizance in the approach taken towards working with resettled refugees.

Traditionally, deliverance of aid begins with the tertiary levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in which successful deliverance may be measured by the amount of food, clothing, and medical needs supplied. However, in moving beyond these lower levels and into the levels of love or belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization, as secondary approaches in the resettlement process, a Western lens is often applied. 

Defining resilience from this linearly structured paradigm—ending with a focus on the self, with self-reliance, independence, and self-worth defined as the pinnacle of emotional needs—much is sacrificed in the overlooking of self-transcendence. While the Western model of meeting emotional needs may end with this concept of self-actualization, the collectivist view of emotional wellness and adjustment rooted in the culture and faith of many refugees does not emphasize the role of the self in resilience. 

On the contrary, achieving emotional resilience for many refugees from collectivist communities relies heavily on the recognition that the self should not be the focus of successful adjustment. For instance, among resettled Syrian refugees who self-identify as Muslim, the role of the ummah is critical in resettlement. So too is the humbling of the nafs (self or ego) which may seem contrary to the goal of self-actualization frequently touted as a measure of success in more individualistic societies such as the United States. 

Achieving emotional resilience for many refugees from collectivist communities relies heavily on the recognition that the self should not be the focus of successful adjustment.

Exploring refugee integration through the lens of cultural and faith-based values, with emphasis on collectivism and uncertainty avoidance, can provide a new avenue of moving toward a more successful resettlement process informed by ethical and religious principles. Moving away from the traditional Western model of self-actualization in therapeutic paradigms and toward a more culturally competent model of self-transcendence can provide help to overcome perceived cultural stigmatization of mental health disabilities, which are a leading cause in refugee integration struggles.

Exploring the physical, psychological, community, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of resilience, the process of forced migration is viewed as a traumatic experience that removes concrete connection to home and impacts the processing of trauma. In a 2017 assessment of trauma and mental health which also tested for resilience, researchers found that the link between resilience and reaction to trauma from a mental health perspective exists strongly among resettled refugee children and youth. According to Kristina Johansen and Ingunn Studsrød, recovery from this trauma is also evident among unaccompanied refugee minors who can rebuild holistic resilience by engaging in positive interpersonal communication with family, peers, and the community. Revisiting and redesigning resettlement assessment tools with a more faith-centric focus may be the first step in providing greater emotional support to resettled refugees under the Biden administration.

Redesigning resettlement assessment tools with a more faith-centric focus may be the first step in providing greater emotional support to resettled refugees.

In assessing research conducted on oral histories of resettled Syrian refugees collected by students at Duke University, a common thread that bound together the concepts of resilience and mental health for the resettled refugees was the sense of closeness to others—particularly family, friends, and community driven by faith-based motivation. Along with religious adherence and faith directives, the oral history participants highlighted the thread of collectivism as a critically missing component in their resettlement experience. Approaching refugee resettlement in the United States as a unique opportunity to nurture the upper levels of Maslow’s hierarchy and to move beyond a Western conceptualization of emotional resilience into a more culturally cognizant and faith-centric approach is not just the most ethical approach to resettlement, but also the most humane. 

As an organization that values social justice and commitment to improving the world, Islamic Relief USA has seen firsthand the benefits of having refugees become part of America’s social fabric and economy. The organization had funded a refugee resettlement program in Greensboro, North Carolina, helping refugees to assimilate into American society and to become productive citizens. Their contributions have helped stimulate local and state economies. Studies have shown that their productivity has resulted in greater revenue than what the monetary value in social services they would consume. 

With the right guidance, nurturing, and most importantly, policies, refugees can make profound positive differences in society. Under the new administration, Islamic Relief USA will make it its goal to emphasize this facts-based reality.

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