Working—and Connecting—With Afghan Refugees

Many Afghan refugees are coming to the United States. How can we effectively work with our new neighbors?

COMMENTARY

With the Biden Administration’s plans to resettle 95,000 Afghans in the United States, there is a good chance that we will come across some of our new neighbors in the community or in our workplaces. Here are a few thoughts on how we can be humble, aware, and respectful of their culture and religion. For the sake of simplification, each bullet point starts with a letter of the word, Afghanistan.

- Acknowledge that Afghans are not a homogeneous group. They do not speak one language, and they do not practice one religion; they come from diverse backgrounds.

- Find out about them. Be genuinely curious and interested. Ask questions rather than making assumptions, have a student attitude, and let them teach you. Say things like “walk me through this.”

- Get familiar with their beliefs and customs. Most Afghans are Muslims, and they lean on family, community, tribal elders, local healers, Imams and religious leaders, and spirituality (both faith articles and religious rituals) in addition to cultural practices as their healing tools.

- Have a comprehensive and holistic plan when working with them. Make sure your plan addresses their immediate basic needs in the here-and-now, but also have the pre-, intra-, and post-resettlement trauma context in mind.

- Ask about how things have been for them so far. The new Afghans, given their special visa status, might not enjoy the honeymoon phase we observed in refugees from other countries. Their work with the coalition forces could subject them to suspicion, alienation, or even hostility from the rest of the community.

- Never give false hope, but never preach despair. Three themes are important at the moment: 1) safety through leaning on family and being welcomed by the established Afghan community and the larger society; 2) hope through government and non-government organizations that help them find decent housing and with their legal status; and 3) skill-building to help them learn the American system and navigate how they care for themselves and their families in a new environment.

- In working with Afghans, remember that Islamophobia is real. The American dream might not be a rosy picture, given that Islamophobia is a danger that may be facing many Afghans when they move to America. Be careful not to be part of the abuse, and try to understand the culture before you make judgments or generalizations about women’s dress code, family hierarchy, and other dynamics.

- Set culturally humble services and resources for the youth so they do not lose their language, culture, or religion. Youth master the English language quickly and can learn new habits in public schools and the mainstream American culture that might contradict their cultural norms at home, creating power imbalance and threatening the family system. Empowering Mosques and community centers and collaborating with bicultural Muslim mental health practitioners and clinicians will likely be very helpful.

- Try to understand the culture. Given that cultural norms differ when it comes to parenting, it is important for the Afghan community to have strong relationships with agencies like the US Department of Homeland Security and Child Protective Services so that common ground and guidelines can be established in advance.

- Acknowledge the transgenerational trauma by creating programs that empower all family members. Like what we noticed with the Iraqi, Syrian, and Rohingya refugees, I predict that many Afghan men will show symptoms of depression, forcing women to start driving or working outside the house.

- Never feel or show despair if you do not know the answers to their questions. Do not feel pressure to be everything for your clients. Do not react to their reactions, but rather be their sounding board, bear witness, and refer them to available inner and outer resources.

Dr Reda is a practicing psychiatrist, Providence Healthcare System, Portland, Oregon.