1.1. Studying Resilience among War Refugees
The terrible war taking place in Ukraine since the end of February 2022 has provoked a huge exodus of civilians looking for security amid the threats of bombings, destruction, and invasion-related hazards to life. The substantial population displacement from endangered areas has engendered a humanitarian crisis of vast proportions. Many countries in Europe have strongly engaged in efforts to offer shelter and help for the urgent needs of those who have fled their homes. Indeed, the war has revealed the worst and the best of humans—whether they are directly or indirectly involved.
Since the first weeks of the conflict and after witnessing the scale and reach of this crisis, an international team of researchers (which has previously collaborated in projects on coping, religion, and related dimensions) decided to study the elements of adversity, stress, coping, and resilience manifest in this refugee crisis. The principal objective was to better understand coping and resilience among those most severely affected by this war. This project was not motivated by mere curiosity, but by an interest in helping others who find themselves now or in the future in similar situations and who have to cope with such struggles. A normative and even therapeutic intention informed this entire project.
Besides the general objective, we conceived other objectives for our projected research:
To assess coping strategies and resilience among war refugees (considering age, education, socio-economic background, etc.)
To identify the influence of religion on the coping mechanisms, along with other strategies aimed to achieve resilience.
To ascertain motivations among volunteers (both formal and informal) and those engaging in hosting refugees.
To increase our comprehension of the dynamics of the human condition in times of great struggle (such as war), and how people manage to survive and to adapt in those harsh circumstances.
To identify and describe altruistic attitudes and their special features arising in time of great stress and demand for help.
To identify and document experiences and practices that could be included in the educational curriculum of young generations regarding both the positive and negative aspects of human nature.
To contribute to and complement the development of both past and current studies on humans flourishing in hard conditions.
The present project builds upon an ample repertoire of published studies, with similar aims and results. Our own study aims to contribute with new data to the available studies and to explore novel or different means these vulnerable populations achieve resilience.
1.2. State of Research on Refugees and Resilience
When dealing with our subject, at least three different but often related research areas can be identified: (1) studies on coping and resilience; (2) studies on refugees, their mental health and wellbeing; and (3) studies on religion and its role in coping and resilience. These areas contain a consistent body of published research, and offer points of convergence relevant to refugees, and their coping and resilience, with attention to religious factors.
The exhaustive bibliographic database PubMed can provide an initial orientation. In it, there are 155.508 entries on “coping strategies”: more specific entries on “religious coping” amount to 3.041. Searching for the word “resilience” yields 55.892 entries; “resilience and religion”, 728; “resilience and refugees”, 486; and “refugees and mental health”, 3573 (data from 2 August 2022). More specifically, on “refuges and resilience”, the PubMed database offers 503 entries; adding the filter “religion”, we obtained 22 entries. To identify the most relevant published papers that would offer useful information to better contextualize our own research, we traced a path from the literature with the most general focus to that with the most detailed focus: centred on refugees, their struggles, and their coping and resilience strategies.
It is convenient to start with some broad views and definitions of resilience. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers the following: “an ability to recover or adjust easily to misfortune or change”. This ability is closely related to the capacity to cope, or—again with the same dictionary—“to deal with and attempt to overcome problems and difficulties”. Indeed, one finds definitions that include coping as part of a broad view on resilience: “A general and generic property of systems, the broad ability of a system to cope with disturbances without changing state” [1
]. The authors of this latter study specify 22 uses or meanings of “resilience”, even if their focus falls more on the ecological sciences. Possibly, the following definition is more operative in our case and context: “A capacity to confront, absorb, withstand, accommodate, reconcile, and/or adjust to condition of adversity, setback, and challenge in the pursuit of desired or desirable goals or states” [2
Going a little deeper into the topic of resilience, one finds that most studies on resilience build upon a wide network of existing uses and applications, in a very transdisciplinary zone. Indeed, resilience has now become a hub for many crossing and interacting sciences and approaches, including biology, ecology, social sciences, and therapeutic sciences. In several cases, the emphasis is on the systemic character of resilience. After undertaking a multidimensional review, one paper was found to identify seven common traits; resilient systems are characterized by: (1) the ability to deal with adversity; (2) a processual character; (3) the ability to make expected trade-offs; (4) open, dynamic, and complex architectures; (5) promotion of connectivity; (6) the capacity to learn; and (7) diversity, redundancy, and participation. All this is aimed at “securing the resources required for sustainability in stressed environments” (Ungar 2018, 1). An alternative view, aimed at a therapeutic context, builds on a selective review of published studies in several disciplines, and points to three big themes: “(a) hardiness strengthens the ability to harness resources, (b) regulatory flexibility fosters positive functioning, and (c) challenges enhance the ability to rebound” [3
The former approaches may still appear as too generic and abstract when dealing with situations of concrete personal and social stress, but they provide a useful framework when trying to cope with such crises and struggles. By summarizing the many approaches and descriptions, one sees that: (1) resilience is a common property of many systems: physical, living, personal and social; (2) resilience makes these systems especially resistant before adversity, big changes or crises; and (3) resilience works through a variety of dynamics that make such systems more adaptive. Obviously, though, it is hard to transfer traits that ensure resilience in physical systems (or even in biological or economic systems) to the systems required for a person to overcome a major difficulty or stress. Recent research based on field work has tried to identify internal and external sources of resilience [4
This is why it is important to take another step deeper and to identify the stressors and challenges that afflict, in a specific way, refugees. Many studies provide good descriptions on these issues. A systematic review from 2005 described the mental disorders that plague many refugees, identifying post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depression as the main problems suffered by those fleeing their countries in the context of war [5
]. More recent studies identified similar problems: a systematic review on studies on children and young refugees found a significant impact of PTSD, depression, anxiety, and emotional-related problems [6
]. An empirical study on refugees in Albania reports an incidence of PTSD and “psychiatric morbidity” in more than 30 percent of the surveyed sample [7
]. Some forms of psychological distress were identified in another recent empirical study on refugees in Germany [8
A final step is to look for strategies or ways to cope and gain resilience in this severely stressed population. Many studies have tried to better understand how refugees manage to overcome their problems and to live good lives after they have resettled. A systematic review of published literature on resilience strategies by young refugees identified six relevant factors contributing to their resilience: (1) social support, (2) acculturation strategies, (3) education, (4) religion, (5) avoidance, and (6) hope [9
]. A study from the same authors gathering data from a rather small group (n = 16) of young refugees in the Netherlands reveals four strategies: acting autonomously, performing at school, perceiving support from others, and participating in the new society [10
]. More recent empirical research has shown a moderately positive correlation between resilience and intrinsic religiosity among young refugees in Malaysia [11
]. This result is confirmed by another recent and extensive systematic review and meta-analysis, summarizing 34 observational studies and revealing a moderate correlation between religion/spirituality and resilience defined as “the ability to recover or cope with adverse situations” [12
]. Other studies highlight the positive role religion plays in that process [13
]. Usually, these studies relate to displaced populations from poor areas and diverse religious backgrounds. Almost no research has focused on Western and more affluent populations with Christian majorities.
Other studies highlight the role of agency as a key to resilience: refugees endowed with greater sense of agency experience higher resilience levels [19
]. However, other recent research points to contextual factors contributing to refugees’ wellbeing and adjustment to such external factors [20
]. A recent paper calls for professional interventions to assist Ukraine refugees in their several psychological difficulties [21
]. Furthermore, an expert in resilience studies—who even speaks about a “science of resilience”—after reviewing more articles on this topic, claims that the capacity for resilience results from a complex and systemic interaction between environmental and internal or psychological resources, and less from any unique factor [22
]. Both the examined literature and the evidence clearly point to the central role of external and internal social support for those who suffer war and displacement [8
This short review of the literature provided some guidelines to better frame our own research. It is apparent that refugees suffer different forms of distress, as expected from people traumatized by the experience of war, displacement, and resettlement in unfamiliar environments. It is clear, too, that most of them develop forms of resilience or activate processes to adapt to their new situation and to cope with the adverse conditions they have left behind and that are still afflicting their many relatives and friends. The available literature has identified several forms or dimensions that can be recognized as resilience strategies, including religious faith and practices. However, several voices have complained about the scarcity of studies that (1) better explore those pending issues and (2) engage more in field work to observe how refugees deal with their problems and gain resilience [14
Our team has tried to add more data and analysis to the currently available information to depict a more accurate panorama amid the current international emergency involving Ukraine war refugees. To that end, our team has conducted a significant number (n = 94) of semi-structured interviews in four different locations in three countries to gather relevant information, especially regarding the following five crucial issues: (1) what are the main stressors that are afflicting Ukrainian refugees; (2) what are the main coping strategies that they practice and advise for others; (3) what is the image they have of the hosts and other people they have met; (4) what are their current state and expectations; and finally, (5) what role does religion and religious prayer play in their stressing context. We will describe first the methods adopted and move later to an extensive account of the main results from this qualitative survey.