how Sudanese forced migrants use their social network to cope with their traumatic past
Sara ter Beeke
Since I have travelled in Sudan in 2008 I have met several Sudanese around the world. What has struck me constantly is the fact that they always live together and have such strong relationships among them. Recently I was living with a Darfurian refugee in Nairobi who has been living in Kenya for not more than one year. He had no problem finding all the Sudanese around his area and he was seeing them all on a regular basis. I have questioned myself since what it is exactly these Sudanese benefit from in having such ‘networking-behaviour’ and to what extent it helps them coping with their often traumatic past. In this paper I will explain the influence of the social network on the mental health status of Sudanese (forced) migrants in a new host country. I will illustrate this by showing several examples from studies on the mental health of Sudanese refugees living in Australia.
Since 1983 a civil war between the Muslim north and Christian south has forced around 5.5 million Sudanese to flee their homes, of which part became asylum-seekers in other states. The Australian Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) has surveyed that humanitarian entrants experience more social difficulties and higher levels of stress than other migrant populations (Schweitzer, Greenslade and Kagee, 2007). Many Sudanese migrants have experienced extreme situations such as violence, torture, rape and the loss of family. Research has shown that such events may lead to an increased psychological distress and psychopathology with symptoms like emotional distress, post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression (Schweitzer, 2007). We can therefore conclude that Sudanese refugees are likely to suffer from one or more of these trauma-related mental health problems. However, it is growingly acknowledged that many refugees exposed to traumatic events do not suffer from long-term mental health difficulties (Schweitzer, 2007). The question that arises is: why is it possible that some refugees do not suffer from traumatic experiences in the long run? And what role should be ascribed to the function of the social network?
It would be too simplistic to appoint a refugee’s social support as the only cause for good mental health. There are other factors that could be of influence too, such as family status, gender, religion, political beliefs and personal qualities (Schweitzer, 2007). Unfortunately, studies about these ‘coping strategies’ are limited in that they utilize only quantitative methodologies that list the assumptive relevant strategies , but do not go further in explaining how these are working towards mental health (Schweitzer, 2007). Also, these studies do not mention the possibly negative effects of refugees seeking out with their family or ethnic group (Lamba and Krahn, 2003). Additionally, we should consider the fact that there might be refugees who would simply prefer to handle their own business (without the help of any social resource) and are doing fine so. Last thing to question is who is actually labeling the Sudanese refugees as ‘traumatized’. Many refugees are given a label of being a ‘traumatized person’ whilst many would not consider themselves as such (Marlowe, 2009). In his article Marlowe says that “we shouldn’t victimize them, but approach them as active agents in their process of resettlement” (Marlowe, 2009, p.188). But in the end it is not important what we think, but what Sudanese refugees themselves indicate as important factors in adjusting to a new life in their new country.
According to Schweitzer, an answer on the first question why some refugees do not suffer from long-term mental health issues is given by Schaffer and Moos: “…individuals who have been confronted with life-threatening experiences frequently report a re-evaluation of their own lives and strengthened family relationships” (Schweitzer, 2007, p. 283). Thus can be said that Sudanese refugees doing mentally well in a new country probably have strong family ties which means there is a high frequency of contact with family members.
An answer on the second question about the importance of the social network is found in a study by Schweitzer on the resilience of Sudanese refugees living in Brisbane. In his sample 13 Sudanese refugees between 17- 44 years who had lived in Australia for an average of 4.15 years were interviewed on the resources they used while dealing with their post-migration adjustment. The data show that participants identify ‘family and community support’ as an important resource to cope with post-migration stressors (Schweitzer, 2007).
I would like to explain the concept of a social network to furthermore clarify its function. During another study by Schweitzer on Sudanese refugees in Southeast Queensland (Australia) 63 participants were asked to rate the degree of support they received from either ‘the own ethnic group’ or ‘the broader community’. He concludes that especially the support of family and the Sudanese community determine the psychological wellbeing, while the support from the wider community was of less importance. Especially emotional support provided by family members was described a crucial factor in coping with post-migration stressors (Schweitzer, Melville, Steel and Lacherez, 2006).
Another survey on refugees in Canada subdivides the social network, defined as ‘social capital’, in ‘immediate family’, ‘extended family’, ‘friends’, ‘ethnic group’ and ‘host community’. For money and personal problems participants say to use the familial networks, whereas with health and job problems they tend to turn to the extra-familial networks (Lamba and Krahn, 2003). Again we see the importance of the social network on psychosocial (as well as economic) health.
A number of qualitative studies have shown that Sudanese are extremely resilient in their post-migration period (Schweitzer, 2007). They have social resources that are addressed to when problems need to be solved. A clear causal association can be pointed out between a refugee’s social support and the psychological well-being (Schweitzer, 2006). Examples from Australian studies have illustrated that Sudanese refugees use their social network (capital) to aid their adjustment in a new country. Specifically the family support is seen as a crucial factor for mental health functioning and successful resettlement.
Lamba, N. and Krahn, H. (2003). Social capital and Refugee Resettlement: The Social Networks of Refugees in Canada. Journal of International Migration and Integration, 4, 335-360.
Marlowe, J. (2009). Beyond the Discourse of Trauma: Shifting the Focus on Sudanese refugees. Journal of Refugee Studies, 23, 183-198. doi: 10.1093/jrs/feq013.
Schweitzer, R., Melville, F., Steel, Z. and Lacherez, P. (2006). Trauma, post-migration living difficulties, and social support as predictors of psychosocial adjustment in resettled Sudanese refugees. The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, 40, 179-187.
Schweitzer, R., Greenslade, J. and Kagee, A. (2007). Coping and resilience in refugees from the Sudan: a narrative account. The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, 41, 282-288.