According to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is "a person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of their nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him/herself of the protection of that country."
Refugees come to the U.S. to escape persecution or dangerous situations such as war in their own country. They often leave their homes quickly, possibly fleeing danger. They rarely have time to make any arrangements, gather important documents, or say good-bye to loved ones. In fact, depending on the situation, they may leave their home and not know the fate or whereabouts of their family members, which causes a lot of stress. They often live in refugee camps in neighboring countries while waiting for their application for resettlement to be processed. The camps vary in the support and resources provided. Some camps may be well-established and have organized housing, food distribution, and education opportunities, while others may lack even the basics of clean water and sanitation. When refugees arrive in the U.S. they receive services and support from one of the ten national voluntary agencies that have contracts with the U.S. government in the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. They often have to learn a whole new culture and language without the support of extended family.
Challenges Faced by Refugees
Mental health is an area of concern for resettled refugees. Due to the extremely stressful circumstances typically associated with their departure from their own country and their journey to the U.S., Posttraumatic Stress Disorder is a real concern when assisting refugees. Post-Traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to one or more terrifying events in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. It is a severe and ongoing emotional reaction to an extreme psychological trauma. This stressor may involve someone's actual death or a threat to the patient's or someone else's life, serious physical injury, or threat to physical and/or psychological integrity, to a degree that usual psychological defenses are incapable of coping.
Signs and symptoms of PTSD, as listed on the website www.kidshealth.org include:
• inability to get along with others, particularly in close relationships
• paranoia and distrust
• unwillingness to discuss or revisit in any way the site of the trauma
• persistent, intense fear and anxiety
• feeling easily irritated or agitated
• having difficulty concentrating
• feeling numb or detached
• no longer finding pleasure in previously enjoyable activities
• feeling helpless or "out of control"
• experiencing intense survivor guilt
• being preoccupied with the traumatic event
• physical symptoms such as headaches, gastrointestinal distress, or dizziness
• suicidal thoughts, plans, or gestures
More information about how to assist refugees who are suffering from PTSD is available from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. If refugee students or their family members display these symptoms, it is important that the school and/or their sponsoring organization assist them in getting professional help and treatment. Work with school social workers or counselors to help students who are experiencing PTSD.