A Glimpse Into Refugee Family Life Through the Lenses of Scholarship and Direct Encounter

Catherine Solheim, Ph.D.
/ Fall 2018 NCFR Report

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Catherine Solheim
Catherine Solheim

In Brief

  • There are record numbers of displaced people around the world at this time.
  • It is critical to develop relationships with refugees as groups and as individuals in order to understand their needs and provide useful support.
  • Firsthand experience with refugees enhances the effectiveness of a family professional.

The level of displaced persons around the world is at its highest on record: 68.5 million people, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR, 2018). Of those, 40 million are internally displaced, 25.4 million are refugees, and 3.1 million are asylum seekers. Additionally, there are 10 million stateless people who do not have citizenship in any country and therefore do not have access to basic rights such education, health care, employment, and the ability to move without restriction (UNHCR, 2018).

Writing a fairly short article on the topic of research related to global displacement is a daunting task. Therefore, this article focuses on one group of displaced persons: refugees. This article is also written in a spirit of incredible humility. There is excellent research being published globally at the intersections of family, migration, political science, health, and economics. I will not attempt to cover that incredibly rich and complex body of literature. What I do try to do is share some insights from my work as a family scholar and from my direct encounters with refugee families who are resettling and adjusting to their new homes. It is a combination of what we know from relevant research, policy leaders, and practitioners, and it is sprinkled with a bit of personal knowledge gleaned through an autoethnographic qualitative approach (Wall, 2008). I hope that this offers a glimpse into refugee family life and underscore the importance and urgency of addressing the needs of an increasingly common family experience globally. Our efforts to understand, support, and advocate for refugee families can and should be a critical counterbalance to the dominant negative discourse about immigrants and refugees in our current U.S. climate.

Refugees are defined as persons who have been forced to leave their countries due to war, armed conflict, or violence. They fear persecution from those in power based on their race, religion, political beliefs, nationality, or membership in a specific group. Two-thirds of all refugees today originate from five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Burma (Myanmar), and Somalia. More than 50% of refugees worldwide are from three of those countries: South Sudan (2.4 million), Afghanistan (2.6 million), and Syria (6.3 million) (UNHCR, 2018).

The top countries that host refugees are Iran (~979,000), Lebanon (~1 million), Pakistan (~1.4 million), Uganda (~1.4 million), and Turkey (~3.5 million). In 2016, approximately 126,000 refugees were resettled, a small fraction of the overall refugee population (UNHCR, 2018). It can be difficult to accurately summarize the movement of peoples. The U.N. Refugee Agency’s Resettlement Data Finder is the best source of data about a specific group of refugees and their resettlement patterns (available at http://rsq.unhcr.org/#_ga=2.163573179.664664724.1531692284-598031565.1514421901).

My interest in refugee families was ignited when I moved back to Minnesota in 1998 and observed the tremendous demographic changes that had taken place as a result of the resettlement of refugees, then primarily from Southeast Asia. Having lived for 2 years in Thailand, I was drawn to these new Minnesotans, wondering how they were faring in a drastically different culture, economy, and climate, and how they were interacting with their children’s schools, finding employment, locating familiar foods, and securing safe and affordable housing.

The predominant group of refugees in Minnesota at that time was Hmong. A Hmong American scholar and colleagues had developed a research-based parent education program specifically to help Hmong parents understand and deal with conflict with their youth. Those youth were quickly becoming acculturated to American ways and leaving Hmong values and norms in their wake (see Xiong, Detzner, & Cleveland, 2005). That work inspired me to consider how I might develop a research and engagement agenda that would contribute to the understanding of refugee families’ resettlement and adjustment experiences.

My first project studied intergenerational differences in Hmong family financial management (Solheim & Yang, 2010). Then my work shifted to studying Mexican transnational families who are not classified as refugees but face similar challenges in terms of settlement and adjustment in a new environment (Solheim, Zaid, & Ballard, 2015). My most recent work has focused on understanding financial concerns of newly resettled Karen refugee families, the most recent immigrant group in Minnesota. Over the almost two decades of research and engagement with refugee and immigrant communities, I have gleaned insights that I hope will be helpful and encourage family scholars to work with refugee families.


Resettlement and Adjustment Is a Long-Term Process

Although limitations in time and funding are real barriers, longitudinal research designs that allow one to observe change over time is critical to the understanding of refugee resettlement and adjustment. Our current project has followed just five recently arrived families over a 2-year period, interviewing two adult caregivers and an adolescent family member about three times per year. We have been able to connect with them through critical transitions such as seeking and obtaining employment, purchasing a car, starting a new school, finding a new home to rent, graduating from high school, and gaining English speaking skills. Each time we observe growing confidence in their ability to navigate the United States, learn about new uncertainties that come with transitions, hear their concerns about family members who remain in the camps or who have been resettled to other countries, and share both expressions of joy and gratitude as well as sorrow and loss (Wieling, Solheim, Lee, & Li, 2018).


Be Cognizant of Generational Differences and the Influence of the Passage of Time

My research with two-generation Hmong families found that within a generation after resettlement, values and practices of young adults had shifted to align more closely with U.S. norms than with their Hmong culture. Parents and young adult children alike recognized the growing gap between the two generations. Parents expressed more concern about this shift than did children, who had been socialized by the culture in which they were living (Solheim & Yang, 2010).


Recognize the Variability Within Any Given Group of Refugees

We often talk about refugees as monolithic groups. Granted, there are some underlying cultural similarities, but it is critical to pay attention to the variation within each group. For example, within the refugee population from Burma (Myanmar), a person may be from any of eight ethnic groups (Karen Organization of Minnesota, 2018). The predominant ethnic group in Minnesota is Karen; however, within that group, two different languages are spoken and three different religions are practiced. Therefore, it is important to be cognizant of that cultural variability. (Most Karen refugees refer to their homeland as simply “the Karen State”; the name Myanmar holds ethnic overtones and implies superiority of the Bamar, or Burmese, ethnic group).

It is also important to expect variation in refugees’ education and work experience. This was highlighted in my recent interaction with Karen and Burmese refuges during their initial orientation sessions (Minnesota Council of Churches Refugee Services, 2017). As I was introducing them to U.S. currency and participants worked on problems using different coins and bills, I became aware that there was a range of experience in the room. One woman who had owned a business in her home country quickly grasped the denomination value differences and worked through the problems with ease. In contrast, others were not able to count well and did not know how to add or subtract. They were in a “prenumeracy” stage, never having had the opportunity to learn basic math skills because of the disruption they experienced in their lives from an early age.


Strive to Understand Their Journey and Keep It In Mind to Understand Context

It is important to remember that regardless of the country of origin, trauma is insidious to the refugee experience, and its intergenerational effects and cannot be ignored (Shannon, Wieling, Simmelink McCleary, & Becher, 2014). This idea underlies whatever current phenomenon and whatever work one is doing with refugee families. Therefore, it is important for Family Scientists to have some understanding of trauma and continually reflect on how it might be showing up as context for the work.

The focus of your interactions with refugee families might be to understand or help them deal with current life challenges in the country of resettlement. But it is important to remember that refugees arrive in their new homes with tremendous assets (Mendonca & Yayyar, 2018). They bring a rich and vibrant culture and history. They have survived challenges that most of us can’t even imagine. They want us to know about that and to help leverage those assets as they rebuild their lives in a new country.

It is also important to hold refugees’ past experiences as context for current realities. As I am interacting with Karen families, learning to understand their financial challenges, and designing educational modules to help them acculturate to the U.S. economy, I need to keep in mind their economic realities in the Karen State as well as in Thai refugee camps. How do they understand budgeting over a month or saving for goals when life in the Karen State was characterized by daily existence supported by subsistence agriculture? How has their experience of being dependent on meager rations in a Thai refugee camp informed their worldview about work? I concluded that trying to find examples from their previous experiences was probably not useful. Rather, to help them understand U.S.-based concepts, I need to describe and practice U.S.-based scenarios. Concrete images and videos demonstrating more abstract ideas can be very helpful. Learning English words for many terms is important; translation to their native language is not always possible or necessary. The word or the concept may not even exist (Solheim, Kelly, & St. Charles, 2018).


Get Involved Personally

I volunteer with a refugee resettlement agency to teach financial education modules as part of refugees’ orientation upon arrival, typically within the first few weeks in the United States. Although I’m sure there are some teachings that “stick” at this time, the timing and volume of information required by the government (housing, safety, transportation, employment, immigration, and education) are not optimal for real learning. I am convinced that we need a new model that spreads the orientation over time in more accessible amounts and at a time when it’s relevant. Unfortunately, resettlement agencies are not funded to provide ongoing work. This is where civil society needs to step in; I believe there are important contributions that family professionals can make here as well.

My most important learning has come through sponsoring two newly arriving refugee families, one Bhutanese and one Karen. There is nothing more humbling and more rewarding than this experience, which gave me firsthand knowledge of the challenges that have been documented in literature (see Capps et al., 2015; Habeeb-Silva, 2016). I have learned firsthand how difficult it is to find safe and affordable housing. I have learned how to navigate the public transportation system to get to work each day. I have learned how complicated it is to apply for a Social Security card and health and food benefits.

I have learned how gracious our newest Americans can be with rude clerks or impatient civil servants. I have noted their courage in facing each new experience, often with limited ability to communicate in English. I have marveled at my new friends’ abilities to adapt to a drastically different climate, culture, and a plethora of new systems. And I’m continually reminded of my privilege in this world as a White English-speaking woman who was born in a country of enormous wealth and prosperity. I am grateful that I can choose to use that privilege to support families who have fled violence and persecution, lived in a holding pattern in refugee camps, resettled to a new country and home, and are optimistic about a better future.


Capps, R., Newland, K., Fratzke, S., Groves, S., Fix, M., McHugh, M., & Auclair, G. (2015). The integration outcomes of U.S. Refugees: Successes and challenges. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute. Retrieved from www.migrationpolicy.org/research/integration-outcomes-us-refugees-successes-and-challenges 

Habeeb-Silva, R. J. (2016). Resettlement challenges for refugees in the United States. CSUSB ScholarWorks. Retrieved from http://scholarworks.lib.csusb.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1321&context=etd       

Karen Organization of Minnesota. (2018). Ethnic groups. Retrieved from www.mnkaren.org/history-culture/ethnic-groups/

Minnesota Council of Churches Refugee Services. (2018). Twin Cities immigrant orientation guide. Retrieved from www.mnchurches.org/refugeeservices/resources/referral-information

Mendonca, C., & Tayyar, N. (2018). Asset-based grant-making in response to forced displacement. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@chrislmendonca/asset-based-grant-making-in-response-to-forced-displacement-d6c200d765c3  

Shannon, P. J., Wieling, E., Simmelink McCleary, J., & Becher, E. (2014). Exploring the mental health effects of political trauma with newly arrived refugees. Qualitative Health Research, 25(4), 443–457. doi:10.1177/10497323145494754

Solheim, C. A., & Ballard, J. (2016). Ambiguous loss due to separation in voluntary transnational families. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 8(3), 341–359.

Solheim, C. A., & Yang, P. N. D. (2010). Understanding generational differences in financial literacy in Hmong immigrant families. Family & Consumer Sciences Research Journal, 38(4), 435–454. doi:10.1111/j.1552-3934.2010.00037.x

Solheim, C. A., Kelly, R. D., & St. Charles, J. (2018). Changing financial realities of newly arrived Karen refugees. Manuscript in preparation.

Solheim, C., Zaid, S., & Ballard, J. (2015). Ambiguous loss experienced by transnational Mexican immigrant families. Family Process, 55(2), 338–353.

U.N. Refugee Agency. (2018). UNCHR: The UN Refugee Agency-USA. Retrieved from www.unhcr.org/en-us/

Wall, S. (2008). Easier said than done: Writing an autoethnography. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 7(1), 38–53.

Wieling, E., Solheim, C. A., Lee, S.-K., & Li, Y. (2018). Navigating life after resettlement: Experiences of recently arrived Karen refugee families. Manuscript in preparation.

Xiong, Z. B., Detzner, D. F., & Cleveland, M. J. (2005). Southeast Asian adolescents’ perceptions of immigrant parenting practices. Hmong Studies Journal, 5, 1–28.