I first became interested in the idea of psychological resilience while assisting with clothing distribution at a refugee camp in Greece as I saw camp residents demonstrate drastically different responses to the collective trauma that they had suffered in the Syrian Civil War and the long journey through Turkey and across the Mediterranean. While some were inspired to start small businesses in the camp like making falafel wraps or giving haircuts, others seemed unable to leave their tents for anything more than a visit to the porta potties. What was it that sparked some to jump into action while others became completely depleted?
The answer traditionally given to this question is “resiliency,” an ambiguous trait that has been commonly defined as the ability to “bounce back” through a positive adaptation in the face of a challenge. The origins of this concept lie in material sciences’ descriptions of the “springiness” of different states of matter before transitioning into metaphorical usage within the fields of economics and ecology. Once “resiliency” was taken up as a psychological construct, its prior usage as a descriptor for an inherent property of objects or inanimate systems, combined with the field’s tendency to primarily consider individual psychology, led to the term almost exclusively referring to resiliency as a personality trait.
But does this way of thinking about individuals’ response to hardship have much value in communities that do not prioritize individualism as much as we do here in Western societies? Furthermore, how might the values of different cultures inform the way in which those individuals become resilient and how we assess their resiliency?
In order to answer these questions, I began developing a project with the guidance of Dr. Wael Al-Delaimy, a professor of Public Health and Global Health with vast experience working with communities in the Middle East. Our hope was to better understand how Syrian refugees living in Jordan conceive of resiliency on their own terms and the various sources in their life that allow them to be resilient. Due to travel restrictions resulting from COVID-19, the project was no longer possible as we had originally conceived it but we were thankfully able to develop a local adaptation of the project due to an existing relationship that Dr. Al-Delaimy had established with Somali Family Services of San Diego (SFS) and the local Somali community.
Having partnered with SFS, we began running a mixed-methods study that would qualitatively assess how members of San Diego’s Somali community understand the concept of “resiliency” and the areas of their life that challenge their resilience and those that support it through focus group discussions. The findings from these interviews would then be used to inform the development of a quantitative questionnaire that could assess the relative presence or absence of resilience in Somali individuals based on the criteria that had been previously outlined as being important within their particular community.
As I write this, I am currently in the process of wrapping up the focus groups discussions and, while COVID-19 has limited our discussions to Zoom, they have allowed me to chat with many members of the local Somali community about the challenges they face here in San Diego and the ways in which they are able to overcome those barriers to physical and emotional well-being. In doing so, I have had the opportunity to speak with men and women who were raised both here in the United States, as well as abroad in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya.
Although we are still in the early stages of analysis, it is beginning to seem that personality is not as important to resiliency as individuals’ Islamic faith and the support of their broader community. These conclusions require more thorough analysis of contributors to resiliency and how they might be unique to this community but the preliminary findings suggest that, among Somalis in San Diego, resiliency is not so much a characteristic of individuals, as much of the literature would suggest, but one of the community as a whole.
Furthermore, individuals’ ability to be resilient appears to be just as much the product of the material conditions in which they live as it is a product of individual or communal traits. Many of the challenges to Somalis’ resiliency in San Diego boil down to access to resources, whether those are fair job opportunities, affordable housing, accessible healthcare, convenient public transportation, or political representation. Far from being anomalous, the greatest and most common sources of suffering that community members face are simply the consequences of political and economic conditions.
This finding begs a far larger question than the one with which I began this project: what is the value of “resiliency” as a concept if we are seeking to truly support and uplift the individuals and communities that we deem to be most “at-risk”? Putting the responsibility of being “resilient” on individuals to overcome the challenges of systemic injustices completely misses the point of the underlying problem: it is not that individuals suffer because they are insufficiently resilient, but because the systems that they are embedded in are insufficiently supportive. It seems to me that we need a new discourse of resiliency if we are truly going to solve these issues instead of continuing to settle for suffering that is simply better managed.
While my work this summer has raised far bigger questions than I had when I began, I am immensely grateful to GHAC for having given me the opportunity to probe these areas and to my mentor, Dr. Al-Delaimy, who has offered me continuous support and guidance in both my conceptual understanding of these ideas and the nuts-and-bolts of designing and conducting a mixed-method study. I also owe a great debt to Somali Family Services for their support and to my collaborator and focus group co-facilitator, Najla, who has brought a wealth of knowledge on qualitative research and on San Diego’s Somali community to this project.
My greatest appreciation, however, is reserved for the members of the Somali community who have taken the time to speak with me about these issues and who have been willing to open up about the challenges that they have faced in San Diego. They have helped open my eyes to a side of San Diego that I almost certainly would have remained ignorant of otherwise and I hope that I am able to do some justice to their views through my depictions. Thank you all!