Browsing: “Flight and Migration from Africa to Europe” by Angelika Groterath, Viviana Langher and Giorgia Marinelli (eds.)

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Flight and Migration from Africa to Europe. Contributions of Psychology and Social Work

by Angelika Groterath, Viviana Langher and Giorgia Marinelli (eds.)


About the book

This publication collects contributions to understanding and addressing migration flows from Africa to Europe and supporting social coexistence in the destination countries. Written by experts in psychology and social work, the articles approach the topic of immigration based on empirical research in their academic and professional specialties. The book focuses on issues of intervention, letting the research be the starting point for further plans. This focus makes the book valuable for professionals as well as policy makers.

Snippet: pp. 68-74


Resilience and Posttraumatic Growth of Refugee Women – One Study and Two [Types of] Results

by Lena Pschiuk, Viviana Langher, Giorgia Marinelli and Angelika Groterath


Background – a BA thesis

As part of her BA thesis in social work, Lena Pschiuk has conducted a study on refugee women’s responses to traumatic experiences caused by war and displacement. Unlike the majority of researchers and practitioners, she has focused on the positive responses of women, a phenomenon she had become aware of in a year abroad that made up part of her studies in social work.

In winter 2016/2017 she spent four months working in a then new refugee housing project in Athens. For many of the refugees, the road to Europe had ended on a Greek island: the doors into Europe had almost been closed in 2016. The former strategy of adult males traveling to a European country with the prospect of family reunion had been interrupted by legal decisions.

Lena Pschiuk and her co-researchers, German students with internship or volunteer experiences in refugee shelters in Germany, were surprised: They realised that they had got used to the picture of a refugee as a young male. In Athens, instead, the large majority of the refugees they met were women and children. Female refugees are often pictured as victims; and in part they undoubtedly are. But the women stuck in Athens and on their own for longer than ever before in most of the cases, aroused the German students’ interest in their resilience or even personal growth developed through coping with a lifethreatening situation.

Lena’s interest persisted over time in her second semester abroad, a semester she spent at the German Jordanian University in Amman where she benefited from the diploma Course “Migration and Refugees” that GJU had set up in view of the need to improve professionalism in social work with refugees and migrants. When she came back to Germany to finish her studies, she was well prepared to undertake an empirical investigation on flight and migration:

  • She was in contact with day centres for refugees in Athens.
  • She had acquired a basic knowledge of Arabic, mastered simple communication – and had found in Athens as well as in Amman friends who could help her with translation.
  • She had not only acquired sound theoretical knowledge on the challenges and burden of migration and flight, but she had also developed her own resilience and communication skills.
  • In winter 2017/2018 she was involved in working on the Viernheim study described in this volume and got to know Viviana Langher, Giorgia Marinelli and the “Italian psychology”1.


The investigation

The investigation focused on resilience and posttraumatic growth. Evidently, the author reviewed relevant literature on PTSD and resilience to carve out her research questions. One result of this literature review was, as might be expected, that the attention of the research community, which is based more in the north than in the south, on positive adaptation of refugees to their context, is limited, while attention to PTSD and trauma are prevailing.


The research questions

  • 4.3.1. What are refugee women’s neutral (resilience) and positive (posttraumatic growth) responses to traumatic experiences caused by war and displacement specifically in the transitional phase?
  • 4.3.2. In which way do their experiences strengthen them?
  • 4.3.3. Is growth after adversity possible?

(Pschiuk, 2018, p. 24)


The sample

The sample was a convenience sample and included seven refugee girls and women between the ages of 15 and 48, residing in in Athens. They could have or have had the plan to move on to a third country to either be resettled or reunited with their families. All participants came from an Arabic speaking country, due to there being only an Arabic female translator available and ready to volunteer in the interviews. Only one translator for Arabic was available for the transcription of the interviews and the translation of the written material into English.

Other features:

  • Country of origin: 5 women from Syria, 2 from Iraq
  • Marital status: 4 women married, 3 unmarried
  • Children: 3 women with children, 4 childless
  • Educational background: 6 women with ed. background, 1 without
  • Two of the participants travelled to Greece on their own whereas the others travelled with her families.2


Interview procedure and transcription

It took courage, effort, stamina and a good network to find the interview partners and to conduct these interviews in a conbination of English, Arabic and Greek, and the procedures are best described by the investigator herself: The interviews were conducted in two Athenian institutions, the Melissa network3 and the Jafra Foundation for Relief and Youth Development4. Interviews came about spontaneously while being on-site, with special help from the responsible psychologist in the case of the Melissa network and the project manager of the Jafra Foundation for Relief and Youth Development. After introducing and discussing the project with them, they supported the research team by finding potential interviewees. Access was eased, as both were perceived as persons of trust in the institutions. The interviews were conducted with the kind support of a female translator for Arabic, English and German, Ms. Alisa Mayer. Firstly, introducing each other in Arabic and briefly describing the research purpose of exploring positive experiences of refugee women lightened up the situation. At the beginning of the interview situation, a consent form in Arabic language was signed by all participants to guarantee confidentiality, the voluntary participation in the project and the use of audio recording.

The interviews started whenever the women were ready. Despite few interruptions, the interview flow was not disturbed. It was of great importance for the interviewees to feel comfortable and relaxed, knowing that they could express their thoughts and feelings without being judged and perceiving the communication being on eye and heart level. The aim of the study was to gain an authentic and genuine insight into the participants’ personal experiences and perceptions on the topic, which is why the interviewer and translator did not give their view on the spoken word but exclusively showed understanding, approval and empathy. While an open attitude in qualitative research is important, avoiding bias is often challenging due to the existing knowledge inherent in the questions of the interviewer. Questions can be leading. Helfferich (2011) suggests conscious awareness, critical reflexion and control over one’s selective attentiveness due to the acquired prior knowledge. The interviews lasted ten to twelve minutes on average. Afterwards, the interviewer, the interviewee and the translator often proceeded with an informal talk, mostly related to the research topic. Afterwards, the interviews were transcribed and translated from Arabic to English by Mr. Deya Debaja. He is a translator based in Jordan who kindly supported the researcher. (Pschiuk, 2018, 32ff).


Two [types of] results

As the title of this paper suggests, the empirical material that Lena Pschiuk has collected, has been evaluated twice. In her BA thesis, Pschiuk has done what is customary and considered to be appropriate in the Applied Social Sciences in Germany: She collected and evaluated the empirical material with a qualitative research method that has proven to be valuable, the qualitative content analysis by Mayring (Mayring, 2010).

We do appreciate the method and the results obtained by it; but since Lena Pschiuk’s investigation can be considered unique, also in the sense of being hardly reproducible, we want to use the empirical material for further evaluation. We want to go deeper, as could be said, and analyse the material from a psychological perspective. With Mayring’s approach we remain on the rational side, no matter how many “hermeneutic spirals” we make. This approach considers what is rationally available and does not grasp the unconscious. We are instead interested in the unconscious, in the collusive dynamics, i.e. in the emotional symbolisation of the context that these refugee women in Athens share, analyse what these women have said, by Emotional Text Analysis (ETA) after Carli & Paniccia (Carli & Paniccia, 2004), because central to ETA is Freud’s and post-Freudians’ conceptualisation of the unconscious. We want to understand the unconscious psychological dimension in the refugee women’s flight experience. What drives them? What keeps them upright? What lets them go on, or what pushes them forward?

Hence, we complement the results obtained with the Qualitative Content Analysis with the insights that we gain by Emotional Text Analysis. The theories and the evaluation methods of Carli et al. are described in detail in other contributions to this volume. We restrict our presentation to a brief description of the actual evaluation at the University of La Sapienza Rome in December 2018, and to the results that this evaluation has provided.


Evaluation one: qualitative content analysis by mayring

The method

Mayring’s method is used to analyse subjective perspectives in textual material with the aim of reducing the qualitative material to the core message. In this case, a summarising content analysis was applied, which entails the paraphrasing of the content and reducing it step by step to the most relevant information. The categories that are being formed are discovered in the text in an inductive manner.

Still, these categories are developed according to specific criteria, based on the literature, which is why the process is of inductive and deductive character concurrently (Flick, 2009; Mayring, 2010). The focus of this research was on exploring experiences of resilience and posttraumatic growth in refugee women in the transitional phase and probing the validity of both concepts. Hence, the categories were: community perspectives on strength, individual perspectives on strength, sources of strength on the journey and in transit, growth processes.

The results

As Ungar (2008, p.221) states it is crucial to comprehend “[…] the context in which the resources to nurture resilience are found in order to avoid hegemony in how we characterise successful development and good coping strategies”. It is therefore relevant to discover the communities’ and individuals’ understanding of strength and resilience and to grasp people’s views on wellbeing concepts in a more holistic and culturally embedded way (Afana et al., 2010).

Independence and self-reliance

The study revealed that the interviewees perceived independence and selfreliance as being one of the strongest sources of strength in the community as well as on the individual level. The women mentioned educational choices, occupational opportunities as well as financial independence as being relevant and strengthening to them. If we consider Syrian and Iraqi societies as rather collectivist societies where traits such as loyalty, responsibility for and strong interdependence between members of the in-group matter (Hofstede, 2001), then the rather individualistic answers of the interviewees which imply the strive for personal autonomy and self-fulfillment are interesting findings.


Religion, often mentioned as source of strength in literature, was not perceived as being strengthening by the majority. Religion is understood rather as being culturally inherent and infused into social practices. Besides, religious and spiritual growth was not mentioned as an experience had by the interviewees despite being relevant in the PTG theory by Tedeschi et al. (2004): “One of the women mentioned that war makes you question your belief and makes you forget about religion while the psychological stain through adversity is predominant” (Pschiuk, 2018).

Social support and cognitive processes

The study further revealed that social support and cognitive processes, of note in resilience and PTG literature, were relevant for the women’s perception of strength and beneficial for growth. Social support systems could comprise of family, friends or networks such as volunteers working in camps or NGOs. Refugee women’s cognitive processes concentrated on hopes for the future and having specific goals in their mind in order to provide for a better future.

Occupation and commitment

Occupation and commitment were aspects repeatedly mentioned as being a source of strength and resilience shaping by interviewees. While information on beneficial impacts of occupation and commitment in transit could not be taken from literature, Silove’s (2013) ADAPT model relates to the significance of re-establishing meaningful roles in society. Several interviewees stated the strengthening effect of being able to contribute their knowledge and skills in society in any station of transit.

The research results show that survivor processes are highly individual and distinctive with every survivor showing and applying different coping strategies and protective factors. Focusing on the transit period including experiences made on the way to Greece, gave new insights into the psychological and social impact migration has on refugees.

Furthermore, the attempt to focus on strengths and resources emphasised in the interviewees these strong survivor processes and their acquired skills which are too often blanked out when applying a prevalent medicalised view on people of concern.

Results thus give evidence to the necessity of creating and providing safe, stable and supportive environments for refugees throughout the migration phases. According to Silove (2013), “[…] restoring the psychosocial pillars that have been disrupted through war and displacement as well as internalising a strength-based approach in order to recognize, support and encourage people’s resiliency, their inner strengths and resources and their possibility to grow” are of great significance (Pschiuk, 2018, p. 47). This in turn can make a major contribution towards creating healthy, resilient and stable societies.


1 The term “Italian Psychology” has been coined by Angelika Groterath, who has been living in Italy for many years. She had seen how skilfully many Italian psychologists applied theories and findings of psychoanalysis to communities and social groups and how efficient the practical measures arising from them were. It was on Angelika’s agenda, to use the methods that have been developed in Italy for such community research and to apply the find-ings to the benefit of communities or society also in Germany – an add-on to the common social work methods, in her opinion.

2 For more information about the sampling and the sample, compare Pschiuk (2018).

3 Melissa Network is a network for migrant women in Greece, promoting empowerment, communication and active citizenship.

4 Jafra Foundation for Relief and Youth Development is an international non-profit organization registered in Belgium, Sweden, Greece and Lebanon. In Greece, the team of volunteers, who are refugees themselves, work on the topics of emergency response, shelter, child protection, capacity building and livelihoods.



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