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Helping Refugee Children Cope

Psychologist suggests ways to ease the trauma & disruption.

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, with permission
Source: Hugo Kamya, with permission

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:

  • Help them discover a sense of purpose: They may feel guilty for having survived when so many did not. They may welcome death. Our job, then, is to help them discover a sense of purpose. For some, this might include telling their story publicly or working to save family members. For others, a sense of purpose might have no direct link to their refugee journey but rather might consist of tending a piece of land, caring for a child, or practicing their religion faithfully.
  • Help them identify their strengths: Kamya described a young adult who—when asked his skills on a job application—wrote “no skills.” Kamya asked if he woke up, made his bed each morning, cared for his siblings, and prepared his materials for high school. “Write ‘organizational skills’ on your application, then,” Kamya urged. He then reminded the young man that he had outswum a crocodile, walked miles through dangerous territory, and evaded capture. “Write ‘crisis management skills’ on the form,” Kamya further urged him. Recognizing their strengths helps refugees with more than job applications, of course; it improves their self-confidence and sense of hope. So often people who may be considered wise and educated in their home countries are considered ignorant in their new countries because they don’t speak the language well or arrive penniless. Therapists and other caring adults may need to help them remember and feel pride in those strengths that have survived despite extreme challenges.
  • Help clients anticipate problems: Refugees may arrive in their new countries expecting a warm welcome and streets lined with gold. Depending on where they settle, after an initial honeymoon period many refugees instead encounter anti-immigrant hostility and streets covered in snow. It is important to remind refugees that certain problems and obstacles are inevitable, but many can be overcome. They may need to be reminded that their circumstances will look quite different in a year or a decade. They may need to anticipate being flooded with feelings during holidays, ceremonies such as weddings, and in reunions with people they have not seen for a long time. They have already survived worse; they will survive this, too.
  • Help clients with language issues: Depending on their age and whether they immigrated alone or accompanied by family members, some refugee children have lost their first language. They may have endured trauma in one language, which they no longer speak. What has happened to these memories? Recent trauma theory suggests that they are engraved in the body and may appear somatically as disease, pain, phobias, depression or panic. Perhaps these trauma symptoms can best be handled through psychotherapies that rely less on verbal channels, such as EMDR, as well as bodily healing practices such as yoga, drumming, and walking.
  • Help clients make meaning: As a narrative therapist, Kamya emphasized the importance of helping clients make meaning of their traumatic experiences. Refugees who may see themselves as weak for having passively endured humiliations rather than fighting back, for example, may be helped to see the strength and wisdom in choosing not to put themselves and others at risk by fighting when they could not have “won.” Refugees who engaged in sex in exchange for food or were sexually assaulted may be helped to move from feeling shame to thinking of themselves as brave survivors.

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.