Safe Spaces Program: Building Refugee Inter-Family Understanding and Resilience
By: Syrian Canadian Foundation
It is no surprise that newcomer and refugee families struggle with significant stressors upon their arrival to Canada. Often, these groups are dealing with trauma resulting from the circumstances of their displacement and resettlement. Some of the most salient challenges faced by refugee families when they arrive in Canada include racism, alienation, and poverty, language considerations, acculturation, accessing employment and housing, culture shock, and other urgent survival and social integration concerns. Post-migration obligations may reconfigure roles and status within families, where, for example, youth take on the role of interpreters or institutional intermediaries between healthcare, economic and government processes for the family, and parents struggle to manage their own trauma-related loss and experiences. Additionally, the learning of refugees with PTSD is often hindered as they experience persistent psychological stressors and may have difficulties paying attention for extended periods, experience memory loss, anxiety, and loss of confidence.
To address refugees’ need for psychological support, the Syrian Canadian Foundation, CYRRC, and Mount Saint Vincent University designed and facilitated Safe Spaces: a series of psychiatrist-led workshops and focus groups for Arabic-speaking youth and families. The objective of this program was to understand issues related to culture, inter-family communication, civic rights, and youth empowerment while bolstering family cohesion and improving the coping skills and resilience of participants.
Research Methods and Program Design
During the program design stage, focus groups were conducted with 20 participants; 10 mothers and 10 youth (12-20 years old) to identify individual and shared integration struggles. Specifically, navigating inter-family relationships and community integration following resettlement. The findings from these focus groups influenced a 10- workshop series that was trauma-informed and created in collaboration with a psychiatrist to provide participants with counselling. The impact of the trauma psychiatrist-led workshops was explored through participant testimonials and post-program focus groups.
The pre-program focus groups surveyed both refugee mothers and youth in order to understand the breadth of the issues impacting their integration experiences in Canada. In the mothers’ testimonials, some of the themes that consistently emerged were parenting issues, cultural norms surrounding marriage, and difficulties with learning English. For example, some mothers voiced their concerns about their abilities to raise their children according to the norms of Canadian culture, one participant stated that “the way we raise kids in our country is different. It’s much harder here.” Outside home/familial relationships, these mothers also spoke about the difficulties of balancing ESL courses and domestic duties that they must prioritize for the sake of their families. One woman mentions that “language is a barrier” because it was a challenge to maintain her English-language progress as she prioritized taking care of her household and children.
The sentiments of cultural accommodation were shared by the youth who participated in this program. In the testimonies from the pre-workshop focus groups, they expressed frustration with their efforts at adjusting to Canadian customs and culture while balancing the cultural expectations that their parents aimed to maintain. One participant vocalized this struggle as they attempted to participate in sports, “I like to play basketball but when I tell my mom that I want her to put me in a basketball team or something she just makes fun of me because she thinks it is only for boys but I love basketball and I am good at it.” Further, some of the teens and young adults also expressed concerns about their overall relationships with their parents. The pre-workshop focus groups also allowed the youth to express their feelings of lack of parental trust or support as they worked towards their own goals of education and individual accomplishment.
The testimonials offered by both the mothers and their youth, therefore, demonstrated exactly where the pitfalls of their resettlement process were and where psychological support could be most beneficial. Following the workshops, the participants were asked to reflect on the impact of the counseling support and its ability to address their grievances. Both groups of participants cited the difference made by the “learned strategies” as they provided them with a means to cope with their feelings and struggles. Though not all the psychological stressors of resettlement were completely resolved, the workshops demonstrated the importance of such attention to emotional well-being and the role it plays in facilitating successful integration.
Though the progress made by the workshops and focus groups was evident, one of the challenges affecting the success of the Safe Spaces workshop was the lack of paternal engagement with support programs since there were no fathers interested in participating in the project. Thus, to promote a holistic family-based preventive mental health intervention, more needs to be done to ensure that fathers are actively engaged in mental-health programming and are present during such workshops.
Based on the overall findings of this project, four key recommendations emerged to address future avenues of integration support needed for refugee mothers and youth.
Bolster resilience, a sense of belonging, and social support by engaging youth in more meaningful activities within the family, at school, and in the community.
Promotion of social and emotional support among family and community members through the exploration of cultural, spiritual, and family beliefs, which can be a protective factor against mental health problems.
Develop new ways to engage fathers in support programs. Programs, services, and support for refugees are optimized when families—not just individuals— are involved in addressing inter-family tensions around social integration and expanding refugees’ understanding of mental health
The observable change that the Safe Spaces project had on the participants’ perspectives demonstrates the need for similar mental-health support initiatives that focus on the issues of newcomers and refugees. Through such initiatives, the Syrian Canadian Foundation and other community-focused organizations can empower newcomers and refugee families to reflect on their experiences and bring light to the internal and external obstacles they face during integration and acculturation.
This blog is part of SCF’s “Frontline Views” series. The goal of this series is to mobilize and disseminate evidence-based knowledge from the field while also promoting the work of organizations supporting the integration of newcomers and refugees.
The Syrian Canadian Foundation’s (SCF) vision was inspired by the Canadian government’s commitment to resettling displaced Syrian refugees. Since its formation in 2016, SCF has worked to empower newcomers and other people of diverse backgrounds and promote cross-cultural exchanges within Canadian society.