Abstract: Restoring Social Bonds in Survivors of Torture and Severe Violence: A Study Exploring the Effects of Group-Based Treatment on the Social Resources of Syrian Refugees (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

Restoring Social Bonds in Survivors of Torture and Severe Violence: A Study Exploring the Effects of Group-Based Treatment on the Social Resources of Syrian Refugees

Friday, January 18, 2019: 4:30 PM
Golden Gate 4, Lobby Level (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Mary Bunn, MA, LCSW, Doctoral Candidate, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Background and Purpose

The war in Syria has created a historic migration of people fleeing violence. There are 5.2 million Syrian refugees worldwide with an estimated 600,000 living in Jordan. Many Syrian refugees have been tortured and exposed to severe violence. In addition to significant mental health symptoms, severe violence and exile also impairs survivors’ relationships and social functioning. Displacement also magnifies vulnerability by separating people from family, meaningful roles and connection to community.

Experts agree that social support and sustained attachments to loved ones and social groups is key to combating stress and trauma post-conflict. Yet, many questions remain about how to effectively accomplish this goal. The existing literature on refugee survivors of torture and conflict is small and narrowly focused on changes in psychiatric symptoms that result from individual, trauma-focused interventions. Though group-based treatment has been described as a practical and culturally appropriate way to build social support, there has been very limited scientific evaluation of social and interpersonal processes and outcomes in treatment.


Using a phenomenological approach, this study sought to explore under examined constructs that relate to the effects of war and exile on social resources and the role of social connection in rehabilitation from conflict among exiled Syrian refugees. In-depth interviews were conducted with Syrian refugee men and women who were living in Jordan who had participated in an interdisciplinary, phase-oriented and trauma focused group intervention (n=31).


In this presentation, researchers will share findings related to relational processes and experiences in a group treatment for survivors of torture and war, and how participants perceive their social resources following participation. Using a multi-lingual, team-based approach to thematic analysis, two prominent experiences were identified. The first, telling my story includes the experience of opening wounds and having the group acknowledge, understand and support personal pain. This experience contrasts with the constant need to “tell one’s story” for more transactional purposes required to secure aid and benefits. The second theme relates to the symbolic nature of the group space itself, as evoking the social spaces in Syrian such as women’s morning coffee and late night men’s meetings that were disrupted by war and displacement. These groups conjured a sense of harmony in relationships, across religion, nationality and sect in ways that were familiar from their life pre-war. Some participants described positive changes in themselves, their family and broader perceptions of support resulting from these experiences. Others emphasized the challenges of sustaining social gains given ongoing stressors of family strife, material deprivation, discrimination and the uncertain nature of their future in Jordan. 


This is one of few empirical studies on group treatment for survivors of war and torture and among the first to uncover underlying relational processes. The study improves understanding about the ways group treatment affects social resources. The findings will inform future research with Syrian refugees worldwide, service delivery approaches in the humanitarian aid sector and guide policies related to mental health and psychosocial best practices.