4 minute read

“What does it mean to be resilient — to be able to face trauma and get through it?”

That is the primary question addressed in a new NPR article about refugee teens written by Maanvi Singh, and the short article is worth your time. The article points to a study conducted with refugee teens in order to develop an understanding of their resilience and its source. Now, there is a limit to this study. It deals specifically with Syrians, so that narrows it to a particular culture. However, I do believe the findings are significant for refugees from a host of cultures. For those of us concerned about caring for refugees and introducing them to the gospel, then the information is very significant.

Resilience redefined

For Westerners resilience usually has something to do with “inner strength.” This is an intrinsically individualistic understanding of resilience. For us, it is about how we can do on our own. This recent research, however, demonstrates that other cultures have a very different definition of resilience.

As opposed to an individualistic culture, Syrian (and many many others) come from a collectivist culture. For people from collectivist cultures, making it on one’s own has nothing to do with resilience. After all, no one desires to do that in a collectivist mentality. Instead, resilience is seen as a function of the community itself. Resilience is having the vital connection to others necessary to get you through a situation. Singh quotes Yale anthropologist, Catherine Panter-Brick, “In the West, we tend to think of resilience as inner psychological strength. In the Middle East, resilience is more of a collective and social strength.”

When asked, the teens in the study echoed that sentiment. Singh continues, “For one 15-year-old Syrian girl in Jerash, Jordan, resilience is “to mix with people, to not be introverted or alone.” Another teenage refugee in Jerash said it means she was able to adapt to her new home. A 16-year-old Syrian boy who has sought asylum in the nearby city of Zarqua agrees. For him, resilience means “that I have Jordanian friends.”

A focus on ability, not hardship

Another interesting point that emerged from the study was need to focus on ability instead of hardship. Singh again cites Panter-Brick, “We’re often so focused on documenting the negative impacts of war. But that is only half of the story. We found that these young people actually prefer that you focus on their strengths rather than their vulnerabilities, their dignity rather than their misery, their capability rather than their vulnerability, and their resources and their agency rather than their victimhood.”

Different worldviews are grounded on different foundational ideas. For most of us who grew up in America, our worldview tends to think in concepts of right and wrong, guilt and innocence. However, most of the world operates out of other paradigms, such as fear and power or honor and shame. Most Middle Easterners (and many other areas of the world) operate out of this honor and shame mentality. Whereas we tend to avoid being wrong or guilty and seek to be right or innocent, these folk live life in search of honor and in order to avoid shame. The study’s findings that these teens had rather focus on their dignity than their misery stands to reason for many people but especially for those from an honor/shame culture.

Key Takeaways for the Local Church

It should go without saying, but these findings provide some obvious takeaways for ministering to refugees. As mentioned above, all refugees are not from Syria, and this study focuses on a particular group. However, the two aspects I highlighted above are likely true for most refugees, considering the key points of origin right now. In fact, knowing these things should help us minister well in what is possibly a new area of ministry for many churches.

Consider the importance of community. Singh writes, “The young people said that resilience came from their ability to integrate into their new communities, to go to school and to work toward their dreams and ambitions.” New refugees will often find this community they need in their own ethnic enclave, but the church can also seek to be a source of community for these people. But that doesn’t necessarily mean just inviting them to your Western service and assuming that someone constitutes an invitation to community. Remember, community will look different to them than it does to you. Make a point to enter their world. Instead of inviting them to an event, take a few people from your church over to their place for dinner. Have them in homes. Remember, their resilience does not come from some idea of self-reliance but from having key relationships that support them.

Bestowing dignity is more important than offering charity. If your church is willing to roll up their sleeves and get involved with refugees, the list of needs to meet are countless. They will need furniture, driving lessons, help filling out job applications, someone to help them navigate our crazy healthcare system when they are sick, and the list goes on and on. But more important than charity for many refugees is dignity. As noted above, many refugees are coming from areas where honor and shame are high cultural values. In fact, they frame the worldview for many. For people who place such high value on honor, there are few things more important for developing relationships than bestowing dignity. Show them they have value. Value their culture by asking questions and taking interest in them. In fact, ask them questions about these five categories.