Conflicted Communities: Challenges Faced By Post-Conflict Immigrants and Refugees in the U.S.


I was recently at a meeting with the Somali-American community in Boston.  This community, like many others across the country, is increasingly dealing with troubled first-generation youth.  Many members of the Somali-American community, like other communities, arrive in the U.S fleeing conflict - seeking residence in the U.S. as refugees.  Many of the problems that plague post-conflict societies (similar to the problems that face post-disaster societies) are enhanced and magnified when individuals from these communities must simultaneously learn how to live in a new country, with all it’s attendant trials, tribulations and disruptions.  These challenges, coupled with a poor domestic job market and some of the post-traumatic stress many refugee communities are simultaneously coping with make it even harder to create safe, nurturing and fulfilling environments for young adults.

For instance, many parents from these post-conflict communities are unfamiliar with U.S. laws and cultural norms.  They come from cultures (as do I) where the responsibility of the child often doesn’t end at the age of 18.  The child isn’t expected to move out and become independent.  Rather, he or she may be expected to remain in the home, contribute financially, and perhaps even establish a family all under one roof.  These expectations often clash with the value young American adults place on independence, autonomy and freedom.  A post-conflict parent may be even more susceptible to relying on their children, seeking the succor and cohesiveness of the family unit due to the disruptive and deadly experiences of community conflict they escape from.

Many parents from these communities often have different ways of disciplining their children.  Community members I heard from also mentioned that beating their children (as a form of domestic corporal punishment) was considered a valid way to discipline children.  Many community members are surprised to learn that disciplining children this way can be considered child abuse in many jurisdictions across the U.S. (though it wasn’t long ago when “beatings” were a common way to discipline youth in the U.S.).

Then there is the larger issue of mental health.  I learned that many parents, and to a lesser extent their children, suffer from various stages of post-traumatic stress and depression.  These mental illnesses can be debilitating and make it difficult, if not impossible, to pay attention to children, particularly as they go through their teenage years. Many such communities often place a stigma on discussing these issues or obtaining professional help from a therapist or psychologist - often to the point of refusing to acknowledge that such a problem exists (e.g. “only Americans have mental problems”).

Lastly - many individuals fleeing internecine communal conflict haven’t had the opportunity to obtain meaningful education or job training (Somalia for instance is a country so torn with conflict that hardly any semblance of a functioning federal government even exists).  Parents without a higher education are more prone to economic shocks and less likely to be able to support themselves or their families in a meaningful way.  Young adults thus have additional pressure to find gainful employment both for themselves and their families rather than seek higher education after high school.

And it’s not like these jobs are easy to find in this economy. Youth unemployment can cause feelings of shame, guilt, and frustration.  Many young adults in these communities also don’t receive the attention they deserve from already busy parents.  Meanwhile, they have to deal with the duality of the American experience - an original culture with different mores and a different language at home and an entirely different “American” experience outside the home.  Faced with this dichotomy of cultures, the atmosphere at home can often feel repressive and irrelevant - failing to provide the tools young adults need to deal with more “modern” problems.

A search for solutions to these seemingly intractable problems begins with a reframing of the mindset about young adults: in other words, it’s important to note that “Kids do bad things, but there are no bad kids” and that for the most part, these children have been influenced by large environmental constraints and pressures beyond their control.  This mindset shift can encourage community guardians, such as local law enforcement, community counselors and community advocates, to think about challenging and reforming the underlying environmental factors that encourage youth crime rather than attacking the crime itself. 

For instance, post-conflict communities can often be hesitant to share information outside the community.  A good step is to encourage dialogue between these communities and local law enforcement.  Many young adults in these communities are vibrant and intelligent individuals who would excel at a variety of careers - thus job placement and job training programs, especially those that take advantage of their unique cultural and linguistic talents, would be a step in reducing angst and youth violence.

Lastly - nothing really changes until the community decides to change itself. Many post-conflict communities are disrupted, disorganized and riddled with internal conflicts and disagreements.  The communities in the U.S. tend to divide along cultural, linguistic or religious lines that sometimes mimic the conflicts happening back home.  Those communities that heal and bridge these gaps (and many have, throughout this country’s history) and talk to each other can then begin to advocate as an organized unit for their community with other institutions and actors in society.