What refugees can teach us about living in crisis

Adjusting to a new normal is a traumatic and difficult process. The best advice for understanding how to adjust to the COVID lockdown might come from refugees, who have negotiated years and even decades of life in the lockdown conditions of the protracted refugee camp, also known as encampment (or less charitably, as warehousing).

The corona-coaster and the COVID lockdown

Over the past few months, the world has been adjusting to “a new normal” in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing, Zoom meetings, e-learning, and virtual hangouts have become part of our daily routines. Despite these technological luxuries available to those with means, many are also experiencing lowered productivity and well-being, including fear, anger, anxiety, and depression.

How do we help people adjust to these new norms of uncertainty and crisis? Maybe refugees can help us by highlighting the role of three factors central to their survival: friendship, faith, and togetherness.

Even as we wait anxiously for a vaccine and yearn for the return of the good old days, many have accepted this new normal of masks, distancing, and diminished human interaction. We sense that unless we change our relationship with the world, global pandemics will become the new norm.

How, then, do we help people adjust to these new norms of uncertainty and crisis? Maybe those who have lived in lockdowns for years, refugees, can help us out by highlighting the role of three factors central to their survival: friendship, faith, and togetherness.

Refugee encampment as lockdown

As we all descended into our lockdown in early March, I had just completed a project on measuring resilience and self-sufficiency among encamped refugees and their host communities in Kenya, many of whom have lived in a “lockdown” since 1991 or 1992. The US Agency for International Development’s Research Technical Assistance Center commissioned me to help them understand the complex factors shaping the lives of the refugees. My team and I spent three months conducting extensive field research in the Kakuma, Kalobeyei, and Dadaab refugee camps in northern Kenya, which collectively house more than 400,000 refugees.

We collected data on biological, psychological, cultural, economic, and political conditions from more than 800 refugees, hosts, and external stakeholders in order to understand the sources of—and barriers to—resilience and self-sufficiency among refugees and hosts. We found significant psycho-social impacts of encampment lockdown including trauma, depression, numbness, lethargy, and despair. We published five programming recommendations for relief agencies to focus on strengthening social networks, providing psychological support within programming, and developing accessible and locally feasible job models.

Our analysis indicated that friendship and faith were negotiated around millennia-old ‘togetherness’ activities. Such activities were absolutely essential to the well-being of refugees and hosts in horrendously disabling conditions, as they are to us now.

Our analysis of the quantitative data showed that friendship and faith were consistently associated with lower stress and trauma from the displacement and lockdown, and with higher resilience amongst refugees and hosts.

But what, exactly, does this mean?

Our ethnographic analysis indicated that friendship and faith were negotiated around “togetherness,” or the millennia-old activities of feasting and sharing of ideas, jokes, stories, songs, knowledge, food, and drink among friends, family, and communities. Such activities were absolutely essential to the well-being of refugees and hosts in horrendously disabling conditions, as they are to us now. It is how humans stay human.

Long-term research on refugees in camps

While our analysis demonstrated that friendship, faith, and togetherness were central to refugee resilience, we were aware from more than 12 years of research on refugee camp lives that these three factors are fundamental to addressing the primary yet often unspoken concern for refugees: the search for normalcy and dignity amid debilitating, humiliating, and structurally-physically violent conditions.

The pathway to normalcy is through willful and constant engagement with daily togetherness activities that include friends and faith.

Many refugees, even those living in camps for 30 years, remember a time when they did not live at the mercy of others. They remember when things were “normal,” and when life had dignity. As stateless persons waiting in lines for everything, refugees strive to regain that dignity by rebuilding normalcy. The reconstruction of normalcy is symbolic but gained through materiality; it means that even in the refugee camp, life will go on, and rites of passage have to be feted and feasted. Children have to be welcomed into the world, young people have to be joined together in marriage, and the departed must be sent off through rituals and celebrations with friends and family. According to our interviewees, the ability to gain desired normalcy is a mark of resilience. And the pathway to this desired normalcy is through willful and constant engagement with daily togetherness activities that include friends and faith.

Such themes resonate with Notre Dame research in other contexts. For example, Laura Miller-Graff notes the use of the concept of sumud in Palestine, referring to “perseverance through daily adversities and accumulation of trauma,” to show how resilience may be achieved “through activities in daily life.” Jelena Jankovic-Rankovic is studying positive roles of daily activities in mitigating the lasting trauma of displacement among asylum seekers in Serbia. Rieti Gengo found that friendship networks and daily togetherness activities mitigated stress and trauma-effects in Kakuma.

Negotiating displacement trauma and lockdown stressors

Refugees typically have been violently displaced from their homes—creating unimaginable trauma that will continue to affect them for the rest of their lives.

Owing to COVID-19, additional millions of people have been displaced, becoming refugees of a sort in their own homes, bereft of jobs or any source of income other than government handouts, charitable institutions, or social support networks.

Others have been displaced from urban areas and forced to go back to their homes across state and international borders, facing starvation and even violence along the way.

Those of us fortunate to keep working from home have not been forced to flee across dangerous terrains but we have been displaced from normalcy. The resulting trauma, while not in the same universe of tragedy as that of refugees or those violently or physically displaced from jobs and homes, does affect productivity, interpersonal relationships, and mental well-being. More worrying, the lockdown has been associated with growing domestic abuse and violence. Our ability to create and sustain such daily togetherness activities, be they in-person at appropriate social distances or in virtual settings, holds the key to curbing the stress and trauma of this pandemic.

Stress and trauma gnaw away at all of us, but hope does not die, even in the worst situations.

Refugees counter displacement and its assault on dignity with friendship, faith, and togetherness to build their desired normalcy, that, even fleeting, confers dignity to their lives. It is indeed a testament to human resilience that refugees and their hosts have made these camps—as underfunded, dangerous, and unlivable as they are—into spaces where laughter, dreams, and hopes can still flourish alongside the despair and distrust.

Stress and trauma gnaw away at all of us, but hope does not die, even in the worst situations. Refugees—the permanently displaced—teach us that the future of human resilience is not about big innovative leaps but small and continuous investments in social relationships and communities.

Pathways ahead out of both lockdowns

We began this year with almost 80 million displaced persons and counting. The average refugee will spend more than 17 aid-dependent years in protracted encampment, an unsustainable and unbearable situation for hosts, refugees, and support organizations.

Millions of well-intentioned dollars have been spent on refugee programming based on superficial survey data and pedestrian analysis conducted by external actors unfamiliar with and often dismissive of the complex intersections of both the physical and human landscapes, including gender, ethnicity, and social support networks. In short, regardless of the rigor in design, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation, most programming is fated to fail because it misses something about the fundamental motivating desires and activity of life in displacement.

Short of a paradigm shift, the dangerous sanctuary of a refugee camp might be as good as it is ever going to get. Refugees know this reality on one level. They have spent years and decades negotiating brutal camp realities of relief aid with the intoxicating hope of life beyond the camp, largely through friendship, faith, and togetherness.

However, there is hope. In September 2016, all 193 members of the United Nations signed the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants and developed the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework. This is a complete paradigm shift towards refugee settlement within host nations aimed at building sustainable and dignified lives rather than surviving indefinitely on relief largesse. It is the first time that nation-states and world civic bodies have adopted such an approach.

I am now, more than ever, appreciative of human resilience, the inability and even refusal to give up hope, even in the worst of circumstances.

As I continue to shelter in place in South Bend, I am now, more than ever, appreciative of human resilience, the inability and even refusal to give up hope, even in the worst of circumstances. I have learned much from my friends and family in the camps. Their struggles during the pandemic put any struggle I know of or have experienced to shame. While they are all wearing masks as instructed, police round-ups and beatings are frequent and more feared than COVID-19. Fluctuations in relief, decline in public infrastructure and local employment opportunities, and the global decline of remittances due to lockdowns has reduced many of my friends and family in these camps to desperation. They know that in the post-COVID recovery, they are at the bottom of host-nation and donor priorities. Yet, when they call me, they are more worried about my safety in the US than in asking for my help. For them, friendship, faith, and togetherness are the only factors pulling them—and us—through displacement, with dignity.


Rahul Oka is research associate professor of global affairs and anthropology at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs.

This article is part of a series of blog posts published by the Keough School of Global Affairs. Dignity and Development provides in-depth analysis of global challenges through the lens of integral human development.


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