Escaping from brutal conditions in some nations of Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, the world's refugee children need specific kinds of support. While they are diverse in terms of their languages, religions, personalities and family structure, they almost universally share a history of trauma and disruption.
Many refugee children have had their attachments violently disrupted as they watched loved ones die of disease or malnutrition or killed in front of them. Few families remain intact as they make their way from battle zones to refugee camps and—eventually—relative safety in the countries that receive them.
Refugee children have had their communities disrupted—both those communities in their original home areas and the communities that form in the refugee camps where some families live for years and even decades, waiting for resettlement.
Refugee children have lost roots, role models, and neighbors. They have had to leave behind friends, grandparents, parents and siblings. All too often they were deprived of the opportunity to say “goodbye,” as people vanished from one day to the next, removed by warring factions, authorities, wild beasts, or natural disasters.
Hugo Kamya, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and social work professor at Simmons College who grew up in Uganda spoke about the plight of refugee children at the conference of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC) in Portland, Maine, on June 22 2017.
He described the multiple losses of refugee children, some of which are present for all immigrant children such as the loss of the familiar and the loss of friendships. But he also described the special losses of refugee children. These include, for instance, children who have lost some physical function if they had fingers or arms cut off by their captors, or if they have been so violently sexually assaulted that they have lost their reproductive functions or are unable to control their urine. Some children were permanently physically injured during their escape, as they bounded off cars and trains or were mauled by animals. Refugee children have also lost the normal childhood sense of safety, and this can prove extremely difficult to rebuild.
Kamya described the foreshortened sense of future that characterizes many refugee children. They have seen altogether too much death and destruction first-hand. This leads some to assume they will also die young, while others feel indestructible. Some will engage in daredevil practices, unsafe sex, or substance abuse, as if to tempt death to try again to catch them. And they may simply have lost their ability to assess danger.
Kamya provided concrete suggestions for psychotherapists and other caring adults who work with refugees:
Refugee children need adults who are aware of their current and former struggles and are willing to listen to them, support them, and believe in them. Let’s be those people.
Fontes, L. (2008). Interviewing clients across cultures. New York: Guilford.
Kamya, H. (2009). The impact of war on children: How children make meaning from war experiences. Journal of Immigrant and refugee Studies, 7, 2, 211-216
Kamya, H. (2008). Healing from Refugee Trauma: The Significance of Spiritual Beliefs, Faith Community, and Faith-based Services. In Froma Walsh (Ed.). Spiritual resources in family therapy (286-300). 2rd edition. New York: Guilford Press
Kamya, H. & White, E. (2011). Expanding cross-cultural understanding of suicide among immigrants: The case of the Somali. Families in Society, 92(4), 419-425.