Abstract: Ambiguous Loss of Home: The Social-Relational and Place-Based Consequences of War and Forced Migration for Syrian Refugees in Jordan (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Ambiguous Loss of Home: The Social-Relational and Place-Based Consequences of War and Forced Migration for Syrian Refugees in Jordan

Thursday, January 21, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Mary Bunn, PhD, Research Scientist, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL
Gina Samuels, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Background and Purpose

Approximately 6.3 million Syrian men, women and children have fled their homes to neighboring countries in the Middle East since the war began in 2011. In addition to explicit risks to safety and mental and physical health, living under conditions of war and political terror breeds fear and mistrust and can have a deeply polluting effect on intimate ties, community relationships and the broader social fabric. Forced migration often contributes to new social-relational losses by separating families, changing family roles and disrupting connection to community. Although social relationships are considered key to combating the effects of trauma post-conflict and vital for long-term adaptation, understanding the social-relational consequences of war and forced displacement remain significant gaps in social work research and practice. The purpose of this study was to examine the impact of war and forced migration on the social relationships of Syrian refugees in Jordan, including the nature and meanings that Syrian men and women attributed to such experiences.


This constructivist-interpretive study used a purposeful sampling approach focused on interviewing Syrian men and women who were living in urban areas in Jordan. A multiphase approach to analysis was employed, beginning with open-coding and the development of descriptive categories. Later phases pursued conceptual analyses using ambiguous loss as a sensitizing concept, a grounded theory analytic technique. Ambiguous losses are losses that remain unclear and lack clear boundaries, have limited social acknowledgement or rituals to mourn. The analysis also drew on a related concept of ambiguous loss of home where home is defined as a social-relational experience, intertwined with culture, a sense of place, definitions and expectations surrounding the self, roles and relationships.


The resulting model describes social-relational losses including an eroding of Syrian men and women’s sense of social life and identity in ways that were inconsistent with their experiences of home. Three interrelated and increasingly invisible levels of loss were identified including 1.) the specific loss incident (uprooting from home/homeland); 2.) associated losses triggered by the loss event (relationships, social spaces, community ties); and 3.) remote and abstract losses (future possibilities, shared dreams, identity losses).

Conclusions and Implications

To date, research with refugees has predominantly focused on the ways in which mental health issues are tied to experiences during war and traumatic events. Findings from this study, however, highlight the more subtle social-relational losses of war and displacement. As such, the model offers an alternative, complimentary framework to understand the ongoing, less visible, multi-dimensional losses that are so common for refugees and which contribute to distress and hardship. The findings have implications for policy and practice including raising questions about how we develop interventions in ways that acknowledge such losses and help foster growth.