The research literature has overwhelmingly conceptualized social support among forced migrant groups quantitatively and as a determinant of mental health, and thus lacks sufficient nuance and contextual grounding. Studies with forced migrant populations that include aspects of formal and informal support seeking generally lack a meaningful gender analysis beyond assessing differences in mental health symptoms between men and women. In 2013, the U.S. government committed to resettling 50,000 refugees originating in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) by 2019. In response, refugee resettlement agencies and other community-based practitioners have strived to reshape practice to meet complex needs within the confines of government policy and funding. This qualitative study, in turn, sought to contribute knowledge of sources of support available to women who migrated from the DRC to the United States.
Data analyzed for this paper form part of a broader qualitative study that examined psychosocial processes associated with women’s social support in forced migration. A nonprobability purposive approach resulted in a sample of twenty-seven adult women (n=27) who originated in the DRC, resettled to the U.S. as refugees, and were residing in a mid-size town in the Southwest at the time of the study. An interpretive thematic approach guided the current analysis, prioritizing the understanding and abstraction of meanings and actions from the perspective of the research participants.
Women attributed meaning to five clearly delineated sources of post-resettlement support in the U.S. In the absence of immediate and extended family, women came to rely on service providers employed by the resettlement agency they perceived as responsible for receiving them in the U.S. They turned to churches to fulfill practical needs, as well as a sense of belonging. Women’s individual relationships with God held profound meaning as women navigated new territory in every facet of life in the U.S. and mourned considerable losses. In confronting new conceptualizations of community, women made efforts wherever possible to establish reciprocal supportive relationships with neighbors in spite of language barriers. Maintaining transnational connections to loved ones, and mothers in particular, preserved important sources of support full with meaning and emotion for participants.
Conclusions and Implications
Forced migration and the process of resettling to another country such as the U.S. can cause and exacerbate losses of support available through relational networks deemed vital to daily life and understandings of self. In adjusting to life in the U.S., women identified new sources of support, with varying degrees of satisfaction. Nuanced understandings of the meanings women attribute to support available to them in the U.S. can inform social work practice with migrating populations, offering practitioners insights into perceptions, values, and client experiences that are less visible in policy and practice.