Lasting impressions from a Refugee Healthy Marriage Program

From 2007-2011, I oversaw a refugee healthy marriage grant run by my team of ten colleagues in several states. The program offered 8-24 hours of psycho-educational workshops on communication and problem solving focused on managing family stressors after within the first five years of resettlement.   In the first hour of the workshop, during introductions, each participant was asked to state their goals for life in America. This was followed with a discussion on refugee perceptions on Marriage in America.  As I monitored the workshops, very early on, regardless of the refugee’s country of origin or ethnic group, two major themes emerged in the first hour: 

  1. Refugees would state that one of their main goals was ‘success for their family in America’.  Those who had children all mentioned ‘a good future and education for their children’,a comment similar to aspirations amongst other immigrant populations
  2. During the discussion of ‘Marriage in America’, someone would make the statement ‘America is a womans country’.

This latter comment of a ‘woman’s country’ was often stated in an exclamatory or a solemn manner.  It always came from a man; and I heard it from refugee men from all over the globe.  The comments came from both new arrivals as well as those who had been in the United States for a handful of years.  Sometimes it was followed with uneasy laughter and jokes amongst the participants, men and women.  Women would participate in the discussion focusing on the dissolution of the family. 

Fears behind the misconception
As I listened to group discussions both between and within various ethnic groups, the feelings and fears behind that label “a womans countrybecame obvious.  Refugee men were not angered or annoyed about their wives having rights; they were scared of losing their wives and families. 

Many refugees, both men and women, come to the U.S. and quickly, if not before arrival, learn about the high divorce rate.  They learn that if domestic violence occurs, both spouses could be jailed and deported.  If there is physical disciplining, parents could be reported and their children can be removed from the home.  They have to learn the local laws on how old their child must be to be left alone at home, to babysit siblings and other children. They also learn about educational neglect if children do not regularly attend school.  The dangers to the family structure are often learned and understood on stark terms:

   The police will arrest you and put you jail.
   Social workers can take your children. 
   The government may deport you.
I gained considerable empathy for these families.  Fleeing the worst of circumstances they have lost not only their loved ones, but their community and spiritual support systems.  They miraculously got to be the lucky 1% of the millions of registered refugees to get resettled. And somehow they also managed to keep their families safe and intact through resettlement. Yet despite all that, in the safety and security of the United States, they may perceive their families to still be in danger.  They had fled war, persecution and sometimes torture; now it is as if they are in danger of losing their families to the U.S. government.
To me, it sounded relatively absurd to escape your national government, embrace your new governments protections and ideologies of freedom and opportunity, and then to continue to live in a state of fear, as if there is a new type of persecution.  Rather than a government to persecute you based on political affiliation, religion, or sexual orientation, there now may be another threat to your family structure. At the same time your family is enduring different degrees of loss and displacement while trying to manage a tumultuous period and get oriented to life and the requirements of daily living in the United States.
Framing for Success
Fear of punishment is rarely a sufficient deterrent of crime and violence, especially when it comes to matters of the heart.   In fact, fear can lead to more anxiety, which can increase stress and erupt in negative interactions.  It can also lead to defensiveness and the audience missing your message.  Furthermore, anxiety can increase the time it takes for refugees to achieve goals and interfere with obtaining success.  In the worst cases, unmanaged stressors from acculturation can impact interpersonal violence between spouses, from parent to child, and between children, both at home, or in school.
These new insights on the fears and misconceptions of refugees led our team to shift to a strengths-based approach to addressing conflict in the healthy marriage program.  We began centering discussions on family violence prevention by first reinforcing the positive themes of refugeesgoals of success in America, their childrens future achievements, and the entire family’s well-being. We emphasized gaining awareness and having mutual understanding of the wishes, worries, and struggles of the spouse. We focused on the positive American values of safety and security.  We defined interpersonal/ domestic violence and child abuse and highlighted U.S. laws on protection.  We then were able to clearly communicate the resettlement agency’s non-tolerance policy on family violence, and shared local resources and emergency hotlines.
These messages were reinforced with the lessons of the workshop: the importance of family members communicating each other’s challenges, fears, hopes and desires, empathizing and validating the other’s experience, and starting important and or difficult discussions by remembering and stating the good. 
This month’s supplemental webinar will focus on how to raise awareness and invite acculturation discussions on family safety.We welcome your comments below on acculturation and family violence prevention. This month’s guest blogger: Goli Amin Bellinger, MSW, LICSW, University of Maryland Baltimore, School of Social Work