Refugee Journey


The experience of being a refugee can include multiple losses and possible traumas.  Consider the three stages of the refugee journey.

Leaving the Home Country.  Students may experience:

  • Being forced to flee their homes
  • Losses of close family (including parents)
  • Losing friends
  • Exposure to war or combat
  • Witnessing violence, torture
  • Broader supports, such as extended family, neighbours or community supports, are often shattered and unavailable
  • Witnessing violence
  • Being the target of political torture (e.g., intimidation, threat to family)
  • May have no memory of a period of stability
  • Disrupted education
  • Caring adults, who once might have been able to offer consistent comfort, become less available in the face of other survival threats.  Parent distress increases.
  • General insecurity
  • Loss of sense of safety, familiarity, confidence in self and others, loss of consistency and well-being, sudden changes in attachment figures and relationships, loss of feeling of being able to make change – locus of control
  • Loss of own ability to cope
  • Developmental vulnerability to traumatic experiences (i.e., young children are particularly vulnerable to war-related trauma, given their limited  cognitive frameworks)
  • Risk or resilience to the above losses or traumas dependent upon the student’s  age, culture, cognitive competence, coping strategies and parental support.

Journey to Canada.  This is often a time of additional stressors such as:

  • Long delays (e.g., months, years) in transition and camps
  • Accidental separation from family
  • Purposeful separation from family as a strategy to keep the student safe.  This may be in the hands of smugglers, to help improve refugee status, or because the family can only afford to send away one person.
  • Loss of a sense of place (material, emotional, social, cultural, etc.)

Adjusting to Life in Canada.  Stressors at this stage can become “secondary traumas,” overwhelming the individual’s ability to cope.  Students may experience struggles across broad dimensions of family, school, social and personal venues.

In particular it is important for service providers, teaches, and counsellors to understand “cultural bereavement” and the impact of being uprooted from a familiar social structure and culture

Magro, 2009