Coronavirus epidemic offers moment to empathize with concerns that refugees in America face daily

By Guest Blogger, Sarah Vlazny

As residents of Washington, DC and many other places around the US enter their second month of social distancing and stay-at-home measures, many are turning to technology to bridge the gap between themselves and the outside world. They are FaceTiming with relatives, and celebrating friend’s birthdays over Zoom. Some are even attending virtual weddings.

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While many of us struggle with foregoing in-person social interaction and visits with family members, for many refugees, limited digital communication with their loved ones is the norm. While being away from family can be difficult for anyone, research shows that family separation has huge impacts on the mental health of refugees.

One study of recently-arrived refugees in the US, studied refugees’ depression and anxiety systems, PTSD systems, and psychological quality of life. Family separation was studied along 26 other types of trauma exposure, and researchers found it to be one of only two traumatic experiences that explained additional variance in all three measures of mental health.

Specifically, refugees reported feeling fear for their family’s safety back home, powerlessness in being unable to help them, and even uncertainty about their decision to come to the US. As travel restrictions limit our ability to visit family members, and we feel powerless to help anyone we love who has become infected, the coronavirus epidemic offers non-refugees a unique moment to empathize with these concerns.

For some refugees, communicating with their families brings comfort and encouragement. For others, it can pose its own set of challenges and psychological stress. One refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo reported feeling emotionally drained after talking to her family back home. She told one researcher:

We’re not okay because it’s hard especially when you leave your family somewhere and you know that place is not good. They call us and tell us to check the social media and we check Facebook and see shootings and people are dying. So, it’s not easy.

Some refugees reported being reluctant to contact their family because they didn’t want to share how hard things had been for them in the US. A refugee in the formerly mentioned study stated:

Actually, I try to not contact them very much because I don’t want to tell them the issue, the truth. Because our people, they know America is very great place and all the people here are very happy and rich, but this is not the truth. Then I cannot call them and tell them the[se] things ha[ve] not happened to me.

Other resettled refugees reported not wanting to reveal their actual living conditions to family members, or talk to them about the hardships they face during resettlement. Some refugees reported being unable to contact their family at all, lacking the financial resources to buy phone cards to call overseas.

While some of us lament our lack of contact with loved ones that live a short drive or plane ride away, it is important to remember that for us, these conditions are temporary. For many refugees, they are not. It is important to use our shared experiences of concern and isolation during this time to empathize with US refugees long after coronavirus measures have lifted. 

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We must do all that we can to help those experiencing financial and emotional difficulties adjusting to life in the US. We do this in hopes that the next time a refugee calls home and reports a happy and comfortable life in America, they will have nothing to hide.

If you are interested in supporting refugee families and children, consider “shopping” our Wish List for items that are needed on a daily basis. Another interactive and rewarding way to get involved is by volunteering to mentor a refugee on daily tasks like using an ATM, riding the Metro, grocery shopping, and learning about the neighborhood. These and many other of opportunities can be found on the How You Can Help webpage

Please consider ‘Springing into Action’ and becoming an LSS Hero by donating to our Emergency Response Fund today! 

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