Afghan refugees approach gender in America with distress and resilience

February 17, 2017

Family playing in parkAfghan refugees in Northern California experience different levels of distress, according to gender, when encountering the same situations say researchers in a recently published cross-sectional study. Four areas, in particular, demonstrated significant discrepancies between genders: family ties, gender ideology, English ability, and dissonant acculturation.

At a time when communities across the country have become eager to actively allay the heightened distress of refugees, this research provides clear and fresh insight into some of the causes and possible remedies through a lens of gender.

“Afghan refugees have endured decades of extreme pre and post-resettlement stressors such as witnessing violence, loss of family members, poverty, discrimination and cultural and intergenerational conflicts,” says Aida Shirazi, a coauthor of the study and researcher at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.“It is essential to be mindful of the complexity of the refugee resettlement process and understand how gender relations are influenced by diverse conditions of migration and resettlement.”

In the study, published December 2016 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, the authors note clear patterns related to the specific cultural transition that refugees face when immigrating to the United States from Afghanistan. Afghan refugees are “a population of traumatized migrants whose gender order has been disrupted moving from a society with more divided gender roles and greater paternal authority, adapting to a society where these patterns are not sustainable,” they write.

The study draws on the research of the gender order in Afghanistan, gender tensions among Afghans in the United States, and a series of multifaceted interviews with 259 Afghan refugees in Alameda County, recruited through eight organizations serving the local Afghan community. The researchers analyzed their results after forming hypotheses about the various mediating and moderating effects of gender on explicitly measured causes of the refugees’ distress and resilience.

“Survey construction benefitted from previous research on this population and refugee mental health that was richly informed by theories of gender relations and changing gender orders,” the authors explain.

While certain variables, such as employment status, English ability, and gender were more easily quantified, other factors were made comparable by a quantification of qualitative interviews formulated with specific, weighted questions. For example, the sense of dissonant acculturation was measured by how “Americanized” the refugees believed their children were becoming, how worried they were about their children losing Afghan culture, if they believed Afghan children should begin dating after high school, and if they believed Afghan children in high school should go on mixed gender group dates. Gender ideology was measured by a single question about the division of labor in a marriage, resulting in either an egalitarian or traditional, patriarchal designation. Family ties was a single factor, based on current, local family.

Researchers found that women were more at ease if they had strong family ties and a strong grasp of the English language, while men were more distressed if they had regular contact with a large extended family. Although the authors did not specify if the large family contact, mentioned as a factor of distress among men, occurred with families within the United States or Afghanistan, they speculate that the distinction may be due to men feeling as if they are unable to fulfill the normal family roles as designated by their culture. In a similar vein, men also had higher levels of distress if they maintained a traditional gender ideology and if they were conflicted about integration into American culture.

These differences point to possible solutions. The authors recommend couple’s therapy, symmetrical cultural exchanges, and informing new arrivals of the culture of their host society. These measures may improve refugees’ overall resilience. Additionally, Shirazi mentions, “factors that can contribute to higher resilience include social ties, religion and strong belief systems.”

The burden of any migrant includes not only an increasingly difficult journey onto American soil but a process of assimilating to unfamiliar cultural constraints while shedding cultural ties that are often not well understood in American society. “Daily resettlement or post-migration stressors and sources of resilience explain a substantial part of the variation in current levels of distress in refugee populations,” the authors report. “Not surprisingly, the stereotyping, exclusion and surveillance faced by Afghans take a mental health toll.”

Mental health among any specific population living in the United States is a public health concern; Shirazi and the other authors urge that efforts to understand distress among refugees continue. They suggest that future work should closely examine the connection between identity, discrimination, and health disparities among refugees who are facing daily ethnic and racial stereotypes and social injustice.

Authors of the paper include Carl Stempel, Department of Sociology and Social Services, CSU East Bay; Nilofar Sami, Institute of Human Development, UC Berkeley; Patrick Marius Koga, School of Medicine, UC Davis; Qais Alemi, School of Behavioral Health, Loma Linda University; Valerie Smith, Department of Health Sciences, CSU East Bay; and Aida Shirazi, School of Public Health, UC Berkeley.

By Jaron Zanerhaft