Working Toward a Better Transition and Reducing the Risk of Domestic Violence

Abir Al Jamal

Abir Al Jamal, MSW, RSW, earned her degree from the University of Western.  She spent over twenty years in Lebanon as a social worker with national and international social services working with refugees, internally displaced, and vulnerable populations. In Canada, she works at Muslim Resource Centre for Social Support and Integration (MRCSSI) as a social worker and research coordinator directly in the fields’ domestic   violence, homicide and social issues that affect newcomers’ communities.

April 4th marks the day for Refugee Rights! This day is an opportunity for people around the world to recognize war as a major violation of human rights as well as the impact that war has on humanity at large, and refugees in particular.

When a war occurs, refugees are uprooted from their countries. They leave their life, dreams, and aspirations to shift into a survival mode that is dark and uncertain. Refugees have the right to live, exist, and thrive wherever they go. They are valuable to the countries that receive them, as both social capital and contributors. Children of these refugees will be part of the future of the host countries. The vulnerability that refugees face motivates their resiliency, which has them continuously adjusting to harsh circumstances, coping with what they have in order to safeguard their families.

Refugee Camp

For people working with refugees, every day is Refugee Rights Day. Every day is an opportunity to advocate for their rights, pursue social justice, and acknowledge their resiliency and vulnerability. April 4th will hopefully give nations and international community and service providers a time to pause and reflect on some important questions:

What can we do to better to assist refugees?

  • How can we ease their struggles?
  • How can we work with them more effectively?
  • How can we build welcoming and responsive communities?
  • How can we empower and support them to address their issues related to pre and post immigration struggles that impede their settlement or trigger unresolved trauma and domestic violence?

Despite the significant trauma and hardships that refugees experience, they remain resilient, and they often thrive. Refugee families continue to cope and adjust to their lived realities and make sense of their lives and their journey. This strength is rooted in their passion and deep hope to ensure the safety of their family, and to maintain unity and well-being of the family members. They struggle with available resources, which are sometimes very minimal and exert tremendous pressures on the family.

Gender roles, social threats, and major family stressors: the risk of domestic violence escalates

Looking around us at the world, war is one of the main reasons people are pushed out of their countries. Refugees experience a devastating loss of everything:  property, income, social status, and their extended families and their origins. They may suffer the trauma of having lost family members as a result of death/killings, or they may themselves have experienced prosecution or abduction. At first, refugees are likely to temporarily settle in neighbouring countries--‘transit countries’-- where they live in refugee camps or are squeezed into rented houses with other refugee families. 

Family in Poverty

Parents and older siblings work together to protect and provide for their children and siblings in a selfless manner; most often, they forget themselves as a couple, or leave behind their childhood for the good of the family, which includes extended family commitments. Most refugee families suffer terrible financial hardships and are rarely able to provide the basic necessities.

There are social threats to them as well, like when children are no longer in school, which adds stressors on the parents who feel they are failing their children’s educational needs. Refugee families also face discrimination, are at-risk of sex trafficking.  Women and children in particular are vulnerable to experience abuse. Socio-economics hardships affect the basic family dynamic, with women being able to more easily find low-paying employment, while men have a harder time finding professional or even basic work. Many parents find themselves forced to send their children to work and support the family unit’s survival. In many cases, refugee families find themselves in the dark with no assurances of where the family will ultimately settle.

Norms around gender roles are often reversed, and parent-child relationships may be impacted under these chaotic circumstances. Again, the family stressors are enormous, and feelings of helplessness can overwhelm families. Domestic violence (DV) may develop as a response to the family’s new lived reality. This abuse then becomes a new burden that is added to the family context.

When we consider refugees’ countries of origin, it is of note that the majority of recent refugee families are from collectivist cultures. These families highly value and prioritize “extended family systems” over single nuclear (immediate) family functioning. Hence refugee families experience stresses, obligations and supports that extend to large networks of relationships, which may include those from the same region, tribe, maternal or paternal extended families. Individuals within the collectivist family are expected to work for the collective wellbeing of the family rather than any individual agency. These family values and traditions are very important to refugee families, defining their cultural identity.

Developing services that are culturally informed and culturally integrative is central to reduce and eliminate the risk of DV and/or address DV among refugee families. Culturally integrative services help refugee families to integrate into their host countries while maintaining their own unique cultural identify and values. By addressing the unique family values and helping to respond to the many struggles and stressors that refugee families face, we can better work toward facilitating an easier transition into their host countries and help reduce the negative socio-economic impacts and risks of domestic violence.