Refugee Mental Health and Healing: Understanding the Impact of Policies of Rapid Economic Self-sufficiency and the Importance of Meaningful Work

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Although refugees who are accepted for resettlement in a third country are guaranteed certain rights and experience safety from war and persecution, they face many mental health challenges. Using qualitative methods and constructivist grounded theory, we explored culturally specific perspectives on trauma and recovery among Burundian, Congolese, and Iraqi refugees resettled in the USA. Eighteen semi-structured interviews provided extensive data on the meaning of productivity and work, the ways in which they index normalcy and self-sufficiency, and how they create security that facilitates the healing process. Our inductive analyses revealed that participants emphasized the relationship between productivity and healing when they described recovery from trauma. Participants also discussed individual and structural facilitators and barriers to work. Finally, prominent themes emerged around gendered roles and expectations and the ways these function in refugee resettlement contexts that are shaped by policies that demand rapid economic self-sufficiency. Taken together, these findings suggest that policies that promote underemployment and foreclose opportunities for education and professional development may contribute negatively to refugee mental health, as well as keep refugees in poverty.