Resilience and Refugees: From Individualised Trauma to Post Traumatic Growth

David Eades


This article explores resilience as it is experienced by refugees in the context of a relational community, visiting the notions of trauma, a thicker description of resilience and the trajectory toward positive growth through community. It calls for going beyond a Western biomedical therapeutic approach of exploration and adopting more of an emic perspective incorporating the worldview of the refugees. The challenge is for service providers working with refugees (who have experienced trauma) to move forward from a ‘harm minimisation’ model of care to recognition of a facilitative, productive community of people who are in a transitional phase between homelands.

Contextualising Trauma

Prior to the 1980s, the term ‘trauma’ was not widely used in literature on refugees and refugee mental health, hardly existing as a topic of inquiry until the mid-1980’s (Summerfield 422). It first gained prominence in relation to soldiers who had returned from Vietnam and in need of medical attention after being traumatised by war. The term then expanded to include victims of wars and those who had witnessed traumatic events. Seahorn and Seahorn outline that severe trauma “paralyses you with numbness and uses denial, avoidance, isolation as coping mechanisms so you don’t have to deal with your memories”, impacting a person‘s ability to risk being connected to others, detaching and withdrawing; resulting in extreme loneliness, emptiness, sadness, anxiety and depression (6).

During the Civil War in the USA the impact of trauma was referred to as Irritable Heart and then World War I and II referred to it as Shell Shock, Neurosis, Combat Fatigue, or Combat Exhaustion (Seahorn & Seahorn 66, 67). During the twenty-five years following the Vietnam War, the medicalisation of trauma intensified and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) became recognised as a medical-psychiatric disorder in 1980 in the American Psychiatric Association international diagnostic tool Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM–III). An expanded description and diagnosis of PTSD appears in the DSM-IV, influenced by the writings of Harvard psychologist and scholar, Judith Herman (Scheper-Hughes 38) The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 2000) outlines that experiencing the threat of death, injury to oneself or another or finding out about an unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threat of the same kind to a family member or close person are considered traumatic events (Chung 11); including domestic violence, incest and rape (Scheper-Hughes 38).

Another significant development in the medicalisation of trauma occurred in 1998 when the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture (VFST) released an influential report titled ‘Rebuilding Shattered Lives’. This then gave clinical practice a clearer direction in helping people who had experienced war, trauma and forced migration by providing a framework for therapeutic work. The emphasis became strongly linked to personal recovery of individuals suffering trauma, using case management as the preferred intervention strategy.

A whole industry soon developed around medical intervention treating people suffering from trauma related problems (Eyber). Though there was increased recognition for the medicalised discourse of trauma and post-traumatic stress, there was critique of an over-reliance of psychiatric models of trauma (Bracken, et al. 15, Summerfield 421, 423). There was also expressed concern that an overemphasis on individual recovery overlooked the socio-political aspects that amplify trauma (Bracken et al. 8).

The DSM-IV criteria for PTSD model began to be questioned regarding the category of symptoms being culturally defined from a Western perspective. Weiss et al. assert that large numbers of traumatized people also did not meet the DSM-III-R criteria for PTSD (366). To categorize refugees’ experiences into recognizable, generalisable psychological conditions overlooked a more localized culturally specific understanding of trauma. The meanings given to collective experience and the healing strategies vary across different socio-cultural groupings (Eyber). For example, some people interpret suffering as a normal part of life in bringing them closer to God and in helping gain a better understanding of the level of trauma in the lives of others. Scheper-Hughes raise concern that the PTSD model is “based on a conception of human nature and human life as fundamentally vulnerable, frail, and humans as endowed with few and faulty defence mechanisms”, and underestimates the human capacity to not only survive but to thrive during and following adversity (37, 42).

As a helping modality, biomedical intervention may have limitations through its lack of focus regarding people’s agency, coping strategies and local cultural understandings of distress (Eyber). The benefits of a Western therapeutic model might be minimal when some may have their own culturally relevant coping strategies that may vary to Western models. Bracken et al. document case studies where the burial rituals in Mozambique, obligations to the dead in Cambodia, shared solidarity in prison and the mending of relationships after rape in Uganda all contributed to the healing process of distress (8). Orosa et al. (1) asserts that belief systems have contributed in helping refugees deal with trauma; Brune et al. (1) points to belief systems being a protective factor against post-traumatic disorders; and Peres et al. highlight that a religious worldview gives hope, purpose and meaning within suffering.

Adopting a Thicker Description of Resilience

Service providers working with refugees often talk of refugees as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘at risk’ populations and strive for ‘harm minimisation’ among the population within their care. This follows a critical psychological tradition, what (Ungar, Constructionist) refers to as a positivist mode of inquiry that emphasises the predictable relationship between risk and protective factors (risk and coping strategies) being based on a ‘deficient’ outlook rather than a ‘future potential’ viewpoint and lacking reference to notions of resilience or self-empowerment (342). At-risk discourses tend to focus upon antisocial behaviours and appropriate treatment for relieving suffering rather than cultural competencies that may be developing in the midst of challenging circumstances. Mares and Newman document how the lives of many refugee advocates have been changed through the relational contribution asylum seekers have made personally to them in an Australian context (159). Individuals may find meaning in communal obligations, contributing to the lives of others and a heightened solidarity (Wilson 42, 44) in contrast to an individual striving for happiness and self-fulfilment.

Early naturalistic accounts of mental health, influenced by the traditions of Western psychology, presented thin descriptions of resilience as a quality innate to individuals that made them invulnerable or strong, despite exposure to substantial risk (Ungar, Thicker 91). The interest then moved towards a non-naturalistic contextually relevant understanding of resilience viewed in the social context of people’s lives.  Authors such as Benson, Tricket and Birman (qtd. in Ungar, Thicker) started focusing upon community resilience, community capacity and asset-building communities; looking at areas such as - “spending time with friends, exercising control over aspects of their lives, seeking meaningful involvement in their community, attaching to others and avoiding threats to self-esteem” (91). In so doing far more emphasis was given in developing what Ungar (Thicker) refers to as ‘a thicker description of resilience’ as it relates to the lives of refugees that considers more than an ability to survive and thrive or an internal psychological state of wellbeing (89). Ungar (Thicker) describes a thicker description of resilience as revealing “a seamless set of negotiations between individuals who take initiative, and an environment with crisscrossing resources that impact one on the other in endless and unpredictable combinations” (95).

A thicker description of resilience means adopting more of what Eyber proposes as an emic approach, taking on an ‘insider perspective’, incorporating the worldview of the people experiencing the distress; in contrast to an etic perspective using a Western biomedical understanding of distress, examined from a position outside the social or cultural system in which it takes place. Drawing on a more anthropological tradition, intervention is able to be built with local resources and strategies that people can utilize with attention being given to cultural traditions within a socio-cultural understanding. Developing an emic approach is to engage in intercultural dialogue, raise dilemmas, test assumptions, document hopes and beliefs and explore their implications. Under this approach, healing is more about developing intelligibility through one’s own cultural and social matrix (Bracken, qtd. in Westoby and Ingamells 1767).

This then moves beyond using a Western therapeutic approach of exploration which may draw on the rhetoric of resilience, but the coping strategies of the vulnerable are often disempowered through adopting a ‘therapy culture’ (Furedi, qtd. in Westoby and Ingamells 1769).  Westoby and Ingamells point out that the danger is by using a “therapeutic gaze that interprets emotions through the prism of disease and pathology”, it then “replaces a socio-political interpretation of situations” (1769). This is not to dismiss the importance of restoring individual well-being, but to broaden the approach adopted in contextualising it within a socio-cultural frame.

The Relational Aspect of Resilience

Previously, the concept of the ‘resilient individual’ has been of interest within the psychological and self-help literature (Garmezy, qtd. in Wilson) giving weight to the aspect of it being an innate trait that individuals possess or harness (258). Yet there is a need to explore the relational aspect of resilience as it is embedded in the network of relationships within social settings. A person’s identity and well-being is better understood in observing their capacity to manage their responses to adverse circumstances in an interpersonal community through the networks of relationships. Brison, highlights the collective strength of individuals in social networks and the importance of social support in the process of recovery from trauma, that the self is vulnerable to be affected by violence but resilient to be reconstructed through the help of others (qtd. in Wilson 125).

This calls for what Wilson refers to as a more interdisciplinary perspective drawing on cultural studies and sociology (2). It also acknowledges that although individual traits influence the action of resilience, it can be learned and developed in adverse situations through social interactions. To date, within sociology and cultural studies, there is not a well-developed perspective on the topic of resilience.

Resilience involves a complex ongoing interaction between individuals and their social worlds (Wilson 16) that helps them make sense of their world and adjust to the context of resettlement. It includes developing a perspective of people drawing upon negative experiences as productive cultural resources for growth, which involves seeing themselves as agents of their own future rather than suffering from a sense of victimhood (Wilson 46, 258). Wilson further outlines the display of a resilience-related capacity to positively interpret and derive meaning from what might have been otherwise negative migration experiences (Wilson 47). Wu refers to ‘imagineering’ alternative futures, for people to see beyond the current adverse circumstances and to imagine other possibilities.

People respond to and navigate their experience of trauma in unique, unexpected and productive ways (Wilson 29). Trauma can cripple individual potential and yet individuals can also learn to turn such an experience into a positive, productive resource for personal growth. Grief, despair and powerlessness can be channelled into hope for improved life opportunities. Social networks can act as protection against adversity and trauma; meaningful interpersonal relationships and a sense of belonging assist individuals in recovering from emotional strain. Wilson asserts that social capabilities assist people in turning what would otherwise be negative experiences into productive cultural resources (13). Graybeal (238) and Saleeby (297) explore resilience as a strength-based practice, where individuals, families and communities are seen in relation to their capacities, talents, competencies, possibilities, visions, values and hopes; rather than through their deficiencies, pathologies or disorders.

This does not present an idea of invulnerability to adversity but points to resources for navigating adversity. Resilience is not merely an individual trait or a set of intrinsic behaviours that can be displayed in ‘resilient individuals’. Resilience, rather than being an unchanging attribute, is a complex socio-cultural phenomenon, a relational concept of a dynamic nature that is situated in interpersonal relations (Wilson 258).

Positive Growth through a Community Based Approach

Through migrating to another country (in the context of refugees), Falicov, points out that people often experience a profound loss of their social network and cultural roots, resulting in a sense of homelessness between two worlds, belonging to neither (qtd. in Walsh 220). In the ideological narratives of refugee movements and diasporas, the exile present may be collectively portrayed as a liminality, outside normal time and place, a passage between past and future (Eastmond 255). The concept of the ‘liminal’ was popularised by Victor Turner, who proposed that different kinds of marginalised people and communities go through phases of separation, ‘liminali’ (state of limbo) and reincorporation (qtd. in Tofighian 101). Difficulties arise when there is no closure of the liminal period (fleeing their former country and yet not being able to integrate in the country of destination). If there is no reincorporation into mainstream society then people become unsettled and feel displaced. This has implications for their sense of identity as they suffer from possible cultural destabilisation, not being able to integrate into the host society.  The loss of social supports may be especially severe and long-lasting in the context of displacement.

In gaining an understanding of resilience in the context of displacement, it is important to consider social settings and person-environment transactions as displaced people seek to experience a sense of community in alternative ways.  Mays proposed that alternative forms of community are central to community survival and resilience. Community is a source of wellbeing for building and strengthening positive relations and networks (Mays 590). Cottrell, uses the concept of ‘community competence’, where a community provides opportunities and conditions that enable groups to navigate their problems and develop capacity and resourcefulness to cope positively with adversity (qtd. in Sonn and Fisher 4, 5). Chaskin, sees community as a resilient entity, countering adversity and promoting the well-being of its members (qtd. in Canavan 6).

As a point of departure from the concept of community in the conventional sense, I am interested in what Ahmed and Fortier state as moments or sites of connection between people who would normally not have such connection (254). The participants may come together without any presumptions of ‘being in common’ or ‘being uncommon’ (Ahmed and Fortier 254). This community shows little differentiation between those who are welcome and those who are not in the demarcation of the boundaries of community. The community I refer to presents the idea as ‘common ground’ rather than commonality. Ahmed and Fortier make reference to a ‘moral community’, a “community of care and responsibility, where members readily acknowledge the ‘social obligations’ and willingness to assist the other” (Home office, qtd. in Ahmed and Fortier 253). Ahmed and Fortier note that strong communities produce caring citizens who ensure the future of caring communities (253).

Community can also be referred to as the ‘soul’, something that stems out of the struggle that creates a sense of solidarity and cohesion among group members (Keil,  qtd. in Sonn and Fisher 17). Often shared experiences of despair can intensify connections between people. These settings modify the impact of oppression through people maintaining positive experiences of belonging and develop a positive sense of identity. This has enabled people to hold onto and reconstruct the sociocultural supplies that have come under threat (Sonn and Fisher 17). People are able to feel valued as human beings, form positive attachments, experience community, a sense of belonging, reconstruct group identities and develop skills to cope with the outside world (Sonn and Fisher, 20). Community networks are significant in contributing to personal transformation. Walsh states that “community networks can be essential resources in trauma recovery when their strengths and potential are mobilised” (208). Walsh also points out that the suffering and struggle to recover after a traumatic experience often results in remarkable transformation and positive growth (208). Studies in post-traumatic growth (Calhoun & Tedeschi) have found positive changes such as: the emergence of new opportunities, the formation of deeper relationships and compassion for others, feelings strengthened to meet future life challenges, reordered priorities, fuller appreciation of life and a deepening spirituality (in Walsh 208).  As Walsh explains “The effects of trauma depend greatly on whether those wounded can seek comfort, reassurance and safety with others. Strong connections with trust that others will be there for them when needed, counteract feelings of insecurity, hopelessness, and meaninglessness” (208).

Wilson (256) developed a new paradigm in shifting the focus from an individualised approach to trauma recovery, to a community-based approach in his research of young Sudanese refugees. Rutter and Walsh, stress that mental health professionals can best foster trauma recovery by shifting from a predominantly individual pathology focus to other treatment approaches, utilising communities as a capacity for healing and resilience (qtd. in Walsh 208). Walsh highlights that “coming to terms with traumatic loss involves making meaning of the trauma experience, putting it in perspective, and weaving the experience of loss and recovery into the fabric of individual and collective identity and life passage” (210). Landau and Saul, have found that community resilience involves building community and enhancing social connectedness by strengthening the system of social support, coalition building and information and resource sharing, collective storytelling, and re-establishing the rhythms and routines of life (qtd. in Walsh 219). Bracken et al. suggest that one of the fundamental principles in recovery over time is intrinsically linked to reconstruction of social networks (15). This is not expecting resolution in some complete ‘once and for all’ getting over it, getting closure of something, or simply recovering and moving on, but tapping into a collective recovery approach, being a gradual process over time.


A focus on biomedical intervention using a biomedical understanding of distress may be limiting as a helping modality for refugees. Such an approach can undermine peoples’ agency, coping strategies and local cultural understandings of distress. Drawing on sociology and cultural studies, utilising a more emic approach, brings new insights to understanding resilience and how people respond to trauma in unique, unexpected and productive ways for positive personal growth while navigating the experience. This includes considering social settings and person-environment transactions in gaining an understanding of resilience. Although individual traits influence the action of resilience, it can be learned and developed in adverse situations through social interactions. Social networks and capabilities can act as a protection against adversity and trauma, assisting people to turn what would otherwise be negative experiences into productive cultural resources (Wilson 13) for improved life opportunities. The promotion of social competence is viewed as a preventative intervention to promote resilient outcomes, as social skill facilitates social integration (Nettles and Mason 363). As Wilson (258) asserts that resilience is not merely an individual trait or a set of intrinsic behaviours that ‘resilient individuals’ display; it is a complex, socio-cultural phenomenon that is situated in interpersonal relations within a community setting.


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Refugees; Trauma; Displacement; Resilience; Community; Cultural Resources.

Copyright (c) 2013 David Eades

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