Advocating for and Assisting Refugees from Afghanistan: Suggestions for Psychologists

Deborah A. Stiles and Jessica Walsh
Co-Chairs for Advocacy in International Psychology

Since 1978, the Afghan people have been traumatized by decades of war and civil unrest. The current situation is especially harsh. Hunger, violence, corruption, discrimination, mistreatment, and deaths continue to ravage the lives of many Afghan individuals, families, and communities.

A young Afghan woman suggests what psychologists need to do when Afghan refugees first arrive in their host countries.

  • Address Trauma:  Psychologists must address the refugees’ psychological traumas, including the terror of witnessing or knowing about the killings in Afghanistan, sleepless nights, nightmares, and the dreadful anticipation of leaving family members without knowing their destiny and fearing for their lives. Furthermore, she states, “Some people feel relieved to talk about their hard times, other people get into anxiety issues when talking about traumatic events.” In other words, they should be given the choice to share or not to share their story. She explains that this permission “will reduce a huge burden from their shoulders.” In sum, psychologists need to remain cognizant of widespread trauma among Afghans, guided by the Afghan proverb “بعد از هر تاریکی روشنایی است”, translated as “After every darkness is light.”
  • Provide Social Support. Studies conducted in Austria, Pakistan, the United States, and Canada have indicated that providing social support for traumatized Afghan refugees reduces their psychological problems. Advocacy and interventions for Afghan refugees should foster their feeling connected and surrounded by a supportive environment. Studies conducted within the country of Afghanistan have shown that Afghan children and women have been helped by social support and psychosocial interventions. Peace education programs have benefited children who experienced peer and family violence. Afghan women with mental health symptoms have benefitted from psychosocial counseling. In addition, the lives of Afghan women have been improved by focus group discussions, empowerment, and agency interventions.
  • Understand the broader context: Afghanistan has a collectivist, “we-oriented” culture; both close and extended family ties are substantial sources of resilience. Since 1977, an underground organization of Afghan women has been advocating for human rights, peace, and democracy. The work of this organization has generated several studies exploring the roles of families and communities. These studies have investigated the psychological sense of community in the Afghan context, women’s empowerment, hope for the future, and the role of children in supporting the psychological resilience of their mothers. Although it appears that the organization is no longer active, it did demonstrate the role of families and communities in building psychological resilience.
  • Address Stressors: Given that they have no families with them, arguably the most stressed of all the refugees from Afghanistan are the unaccompanied minors. Quantitative and qualitative studies by Swedish and British psychologists point to the loneliness of these youth and their intense longing for their family members. An Afghan proverb about listening to elders is written as “در را بشکنان و گپ بزرگان را نه”, translated as “break the gemstone but not the words of elders”. This proverb refers to the importance of valuing elders, listening to them, and following their advice. One qualitative Swedish study mentioned that several of the unaccompanied Afghan youth chose to volunteer by visiting elderly Swedish people living in care facilities, thus holding on to their Afghan values of listening to elders.
    Although individual therapy may be the most appropriate approach for helping unaccompanied minors, they can also benefit from participation in groups. When assisting Afghan refugees of any age or circumstance, it is recommended that those who wish to help them keep in mind that family is the most important social network in Afghan culture. This remains true even if family members are living far away or are no longer living.

Currently, the Afghan people have a high degree of trauma exposure. According to hope theory, goal-directed hopeful thought may be able to improve their physical and psychological health. Two Afghan proverbs provide hope for difficult times. The proverb “ در جوی که آب رفته، باز آب میرود” translated as a canal that had once water flowing in it, will have water again (even if it doesn’t have water now).” This proverb relates to situations that might seem hopeless such as the current situation in Afghanistan. This proverb provides motivation by galvanizing people to remember that because Afghanistan has known peace in the past, it will have peace again in the future. The second proverb is very optimistic “دنیا با امید زنده است “ and is translated as “The world is alive with hope.”

In general, there does not appear to be a high awareness of the situation in Afghanistan in countries such as the United States. A recent exception is that, on November 4, 2021, all twenty-four of the female U.S. Senators wrote and signed a letter addressed to President Biden. In their letter, they wrote that, “women and girls are now suffering the predations of a Taliban regime with a track record of brutalizing, isolating, and denying them life and liberty” and they demanded that President Biden take immediate action to protect Afghan women and girls.

In sum, we suggest that psychologists become aware of the highly traumatic situation that exists in Afghanistan. They should listen empathically, provide a highly supportive environment, and acknowledge the importance of family and community. In other words, to make the world “alive with hope” we should all advocate on the behalf of Afghan refugees with government officials and other leaders.

Disclaimer: This statement does not reflect the views of the APA Division 52 Board or the Division members. It reflects the views of the Division 52 Advocacy Committee Co-Chairs.

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