In God We Trust: Faith communities as an asset to refugee youth in the United States

Faith plays a crucial role for many displaced people, providing spiritual sanctuary in contexts of overarching insecurity. Whether this comes in the form of organised, local level faith groups – such as those that may gather in mosques or churches – or in the stories and ceremonies of faith-based practices, faith can enable spiritual resilience in the face of vulnerability and hostility. As Diana Rayes (Fulbright Research Fellow and Research Associate at the Science, Religion, & Culture Program at Harvard Divinity School) outlines in this piece, the role that faith plays in the lives of many Arab refugees in the United States is significant, constituting an asset that allows them – and especially young refugees – to effectively navigate the new and foreign contexts that they find themselves in. Developing ways of understanding the role faith plays in the lives of many displaced people is essential, given both the importance of faith in the lives of many displaced peoples, but also the strong secular assumptions that often frame mainstream humanitarian engagements with faith. In light of this, Refugee Hosts will be producing a Religious Literacy Handbook to inform humanitarian engagements with faith. If you are interested in reading more on these topics, visit our faith and displacement series, as well as the suggested readings at the bottom of this piece.

In God We Trust: Faith communities as an asset to refugee youth in the United States 

By Diana Rayes, Fulbright Research Fellow and Research Associate at the Science, Religion, & Culture Program at Harvard Divinity School

“Verily, with every hardship comes ease.” Quran 94:5

When I first met Amal, I was surprised by the maturity in her eyes. “Mashallah ‘aleki,” I said to her as she fed her younger brother diligently. God has willed your ability. Her sad smile in return was one of an older woman hiding the innocence of a girl only fourteen. We are only here because God intended it, she responded softly. As a result of the war in Syria, Amal left her home for temporary refuge in Egypt. A sudden move to Baltimore, Maryland had further tested Amal’s strength. It became clear to me through her interactions with her blind father and her four younger siblings that she had prematurely taken on the responsibilities of an adult who had seen unprecedented adversity. She was emotionally and psychologically vulnerable, yet hid her vulnerable state to protect her family. Starting school in America proved more difficult for her than for her siblings, who were catching on to the English language more quickly. Without a capable adult to watch over her, Amal turned to the only support system she could rely on – God.

I have been reflecting about the role of faith communities in refugee health and integration for some time; specifically, in regards to supporting the large majority of Arab-Muslim refugees displaced around the world within the last decade. Contrasting my own experience as a first-generation Arab-American with Amal’s, I realized that my upbringing was buoyed by the existence of a Syrian-Muslim immigrant community in Arizona. In addition to attending school within the American public school system, I attended a weekly Islamic school in Phoenix in order to learn Arabic as well as the history of Islam and its practice. I now recognize the importance of spending my Sundays in a safe space where I could understand my cultural and religious background as well as connect with peers within my faith group. The foundations I established in Islamic school, be it with peers similar to me in background or culture, carried through my adulthood and shaped the way I used my faith to cope with adversity. My experience aligns with research by Wagener et al., which demonstrated that religious involvement has a positive influence on coping skills and pro-social behavior in youth. Young migrants like Amal who are vulnerable socially, culturally, and linguistically, need the support and familiarity of faith communities who, while imperfect, are essential to their health and well-being.

According to Fazel, “Children and adolescents who flee persecution and resettle in high-income countries often endure great physical and mental challenges during displacement, and suffer continuing hardships after arrival.” Even after arriving to the United States, refugee children often experience the stress of acculturation, or the cultural and psychological change that occurs when consolidating a new culture to your own. Youth are particularly challenged if their arrival is within the school year, forced to catch up with their peers and school programs. In my own observations of Syrian refugee families in the United States, I have noticed how school attendance keeps children occupied outside the tense environment of their homes; their ultimate challenge is grasping the English language in order to keep up and advance to the next grade level without falling behind. This is particularly challenging for youth who may have been suspended from any formal education during their years of displacement.

In these volatile circumstances, the social and psychological outcomes are often negative and often take an emotional toll on children and adolescents, such as they did with Amal. Other adverse outcomes include an accumulation of stress and pressures that lead youth to build mistrust or experience discomfort when engaging in social support programming that is provided to them by their resettlement agency or within their school system. Unfortunately, overarching stigma and misunderstanding from parents deems services for this population, like mental healthcare, largely underused.

To cope with their private tensions, refugees often turn to a higher power: their faith. In a study conducted with Somali refugee adolescents, religious involvement was a common theme when seeking help for distressing symptoms due to accessibility of mosques and availability of imams and other religious leaders. It turns out that beyond personal spiritual help-seeking through prayer, adolescents were seeking guidance from faith leaders and religious institutions. This research struck a chord with me personally when I remembered the benefits I found within my own faith community in understanding my identity as an Arab-American in the United States.

However, it is also important to recognize that Syrian migrant youth may need more than just personal faith practices or religious infrastructures to enhance their well-being and assimilation to their new home. For example, Amal may need educational empowerment to master her English from volunteer tutors or an after-school program. She may also need an informal setting that allows her to naturally develop the decision-making skills she needs to cope with her personal emotions and trials throughout her lifetime. Research by Edge discovered that refugee youth in their study mentioned “sports programming, music and dance, cooking classes, arts based programs, homework clubs, and educational and employment support services as the “informal” activities they were most inclined to participate in.” This emphasizes the participation of a community beyond formalized institutions and programming measures. It calls on the Syrian-American community and the broader Muslim population in the United States to provide the comfort and social support that Syrian refugee youth may need.

Furthermore, mental health empowerment and resiliency building are not the only mediators for positive change among Syrian migrant youth. For most of these children, America is likely to be a permanent home. For this reason, it is important to advocate for the promotion of a positive Syrian and progressively Syrian-American identity in displaced youth.  Instilling a sense of belonging to migrant youth is necessary in a variety of settings including churches, mosques, community centers, local Syrian communities, and in the classroom.

I was fortunate enough to see the direct impact of faith and community-based empowerment for Syrian refugee children of a family of twelve living in Phoenix, Arizona. The children were a spectrum of ages — young adults, teens, adolescents, and toddlers all under one household. Each and every child had a story to share about arriving in America about a month ago and starting school in the States with minimal English. In between every complaint was ‘God has a plan for everything’ and ‘Inshallah [God-willing], things will be better’ or even ‘Pray that I learn English by the time you visit us again.’ I was struck by the strength and resilience these youth demonstrated; especially in the way they articulated their tribulations. In fact, the visible attachment a nine-year-old child had to their faith was admittedly stronger than mine personally, given their genuine expressions peppered with religious and spiritual meaning. Indeed, the primary forms of support for these children was the community surrounding them, particularly made of individuals similar in cultural background, and ultimately their faith, which helped bring the most meaning about their move to the United States. Consolidating both of these support systems provided these youth with a faith community that was familiar and embracing in a very foreign place. It was beautiful to witness this; beneath every hardship was a hidden blessing for youth like Amal, and that was more spiritual to them than anything.

*

Featured Image: Looking out to Phoenix, Arizona (c) D. Rayes

Read more pieces from the Refugee Hosts blogas well as the contributions made to our Faith and Displacement Series

Carpi, E. (2018) “Does Faith-Based Aid Provision Always Localise Aid?

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2016) “Refugee-Refugee Relationality: Hospitality and ‘Being With’ Refugees

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) “Gender, Religion and Humanitarian Responses to Refugees

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) “Contextualising the Localisation of Aid Agenda”

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2017) “Refugee-Refugee Solidarity in Death and Dying

Kidwai, S. “Engaging Faith-Values to Reshape Responses to Forced Migration

Kidwai, S. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) “Seeking Evidence to Provide Protection: How can Local Faith Communities Support Refugees?

Loris-Rodionoff, C. (2017) “Hope, Resilience, Uncertainty: A Day with Displaced Syrians in Southern Turkey”

Phipps, A. (2017) “A Tale of Humanity, Love and Reaching out to Refugees”

Qasmiyeh.  Y. M.  (2018)   “Flesh when mutilated called god.”

Qasmiyeh. Y. M. (2018)  “The camp is the reject of the reject par excellence.” 

Qasmiyeh. Y. M. (2018)   “In mourning the refugee we mourn gods intention in the absolute. “

Taylor, K. (2018) “Belgian Refugees in Glasgow: Local Faith Communities, Hosting and the Great War

Zbeidy, D. (2017) “Widowhood, Displacement and Friendships in Jordan

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