Advice for Social Workers Working with Displaced Families

by Tony Vasquez, March 2014


working with displaced familiesWe are fortunate, as Americans, to live in a free society where we can pick and choose who we want to be friends with, decide what careers we would like to have, and speak our mind regarding politics, religion, and education.

Unfortunately, there are many other places in our world where these views and perspectives are not tolerated. It is very unfortunate that innocent people are forced to leave their home countries because remaining there could mean persecution and possibly death. When people are displaced due to persecution or the threat of harm, and relocate to a new country, they are referred to as refugees. In many instances they do not have a voice and do not understand their new surroundings. When this occurs social workers will be needed to assist in the process of helping these individuals and families in navigating their new surroundings.

Imagine that you have had to leave your own country due to political or religious persecution. Maybe your country is being invaded and ravaged by war, or poverty is rampant. Or maybe your parents had no choice but to move you from your homeland and send you to live with other family members in another country in order to give you a better quality of life. And now you have arrived in the United States. Imagine the barriers you will encounter. Imagine all of the laws and restrictions that need to be adhered to in this new country. How will you access any assistance or survive without resources and no knowledge of its systems? This is where the work of social workers can become vital. We will become the voice for this population. Our biggest challenge will be to help them assimilate and acclimate to their new surroundings.

How Social Workers Can Help Refugees Assimilate into American Culture

Those finding themselves arriving in a new country will lack many of the basic necessities we take for granted such as adequate housing, or medical coverage. Living without these basic amenities can place tremendous stress on an individual’s mental health and well-being. With so many refugees already having experienced trauma, added mental health stressors may result in them becoming re-traumatized over and over again. Our work begins by being culturally competent. We must first learn to understand where they have come from, and what the circumstances of their displacement were. We have to learn about their customs, views, and beliefs. Helping those that have been disenfranchised, social workers become their advocates to ensure that their basic rights are not violated and their most basic needs are met.

Social workers are trained and skilled in being able to assess an individual’s coping strategies, assess indicators for possible short term and long term mental health issues, and complete ongoing evaluation of how those displaced are coping with the many transition issues associated with being a refugee. Social workers must determine what type of culturally appropriate resources are available to assist in meeting their client’s immediate needs such as medical, financial, shelter, and mental health needs.

How Social Workers Can Help Displaced Families Manage "Culture-Shock"

Displaced families and individuals may experience a sense of culture homelessness so to speak. They can have “culture shock” as the stress of adapting and assimilating to a new environment becomes immense. This can become overwhelming for families and individuals who cannot find and or connect with those of the same cultural or ethnic background. This stressor can become so great that it can literally disrupt daily family life causing dysfunction and instability. Without their own ethnic rituals, celebrations, and languages to connect with, it may cause an inability to function in their new environment. Social workers must assess coping skills and link them with appropriate cultural competent community resources. We become the change agent that will help them find their identity in a new country. These displaced families and individuals are faced with an overwhelming number of barriers and challenges when entering a new country. They have complex personal histories and potential exposure to multiple traumas. These experiences can often lead to psychological and mental health issues that can have long term effects on these individuals throughout their life.

Connecting Displaced Families to Needed Resources

It is also important to be knowledgeable of somatic complaints that can occur after a trauma leading to displacement, and social workers must be cognizant that these traumas and psychologically damaging experiences can cause depression, anxiety, and other debilitating mental health disorders. Social workers may need to link displaced individuals to appropriate medical and mental health services. They also need to provide assistance in finding appropriate housing or shelter, provide education about daily living skills and empower self-sufficiency. While refugees may be faced with a great deal of difficulties when entering a new county, culturally competent social workers with knowledge about appropriate support and resources, can help ease the transition and ensure successful integration.

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