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Resilience and refugee women:

In conversation with Caroline Lenette

[Transcript for this podcast is found in the reference tab below]

The concept of resilience is debated and approaches that explore resilience vary. Caroline Lenette talks to us about her research. She stresses the importance of contextually and culturally located approaches to help us understand the experiences of others.

Caroline is an Associate Lecturer in the School of Human Services and Social Work, Griffith University. She teaches in the areas of cultural safety, social inclusion and human services practice. Since migrating to Australia from Mauritius in 2005, she has worked in Queensland’s multicultural sector in policy, transcultural mental health and cross-cultural awareness, before joining Griffith University in 2010. Caroline explored resilience and wellbeing among single refugee women during her PhD fieldwork. She is interested in visual ethnography, international social development, and refugee and migration issues.

Recommended citation – APA6th

Fronek, P. (Host). (2012, November 6). Resilience and refugee women: In conversation with Caroline Lenette [Episode 31]. Podsocs. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/resilience-and-refugee-women/.

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  2. References

Lenette, C., Brough, M., & Cox, L. (2012). Everyday resilience: Narratives of single refugee women with children. Qualitative Social Work. doi: 10.1177/1473325012449684.

Transcription Podsocs 31: Resilience and Refugee Women: In Conversation with Caroline Lenette

Thank you to the Social Work Programme at Open Polytechnic of New Zealand for this transcription

[musical intro to 00.10]

Hello, and welcome to Podsocs, the podcast for social workers on the run. Brought to you by a bunch of social workers from Griffith University in Australia.
I’m Tricia Fronek, one of that bunch, and we’re just basically really glad you found us. So, happy listening.
Podsocs is today talking to Caroline Lenette, who has done research on refugee women and the concept of resilience. We’re pleased to welcome you today, Caroline.

Caroline: Thank you Trish. Thanks for having me.

Trish: Now, Caroline, you're from Griffith. Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into this research?

Caroline: I've been at Griffith for two and a half years now in a teaching role. I was a prior student in the School of Human Services, so I have a strong attachment to this school. I first got interested looking at refugee issues when I was an undergrad student in this school and that passion has kept going for the last 12 years or so. So when I enrolled in further studies as a PhD candidate, I decided to focus on refugee women and wellbeing and resilience.

Trish: Tell us a bit about your research, Caroline.

Caroline: What I was interested to find out was the women's concept of resilience. We talk a lot about resilience, particularly as a label in relation to refugee communities. But what I was interested to achieve in my project was to give a voice to a small group of refugee women and ask them what aspects of their lives were linked to what we traditionally conceptualise as resilience. So I was really keen to provide an opportunity for my participants to articulate their own understanding of the concept.

Trish: What are some of the debates or tensions around the concept of resilience?

Caroline: The biggest tension in relation to this concept is the dominant psychological conceptualisation of resilience. When we think about the concept, it's usually in terms of something extraordinary that happens because of individual psychological traits. But there's a whole body of literature out there that takes a more contextual or sociocultural approach to understanding how and why resilience exists in somebody's life. So it's looking at more meaningful achievements in everyday lives.

With the psychological approach there's a tendency for labels in terms of who is resilient and who isn't - the social cultural perspective is actually saying that everybody is resilient in their own ways. So it's a little bit more flexible and a little bit more realistic as well, because it's not a matter of having a checklist of resilience traits - everybody can and has the opportunity and the ability to be resilient.

Trish: Caroline, I imagine that there’s cultural differences in perceptions of resilience as well. Even if that term even exists in some cultures? Would that be fair?

Caroline: Absolutely. It's a very much Western-based concept. When I was conducting my research, I was very mindful not to use that word to influence the women's concepts. I did a couple of interviews in French, with a French-speaking lady and I had a bit of difficulty finding an actual equivalent to the word. I used to think about simple ways of expressing what resilience usually conveys in terms of meaning, so I would ask the women, “what kind of things are important in your life,” or “what kinds of things keep you going?” And, “what are some of the things you look forward to?” I did the same in French as well. Even the word itself is a bit problematic. It's one of these words like ‘family’ ‘community’ that we use very commonly in the jargon on mental health, but it doesn't actually have a simple meaning that's easily accessible for people to unpack the concept and understand how it exists in their own lives.

Trish: Just to let people know: you are a French speaker.

Caroline: That’s right.

Trish: That's your first language, yeah?

Caroline: Yes.

Trish: Really it was very important not to impose any preconceived ideas or words during these interviews, so you really described a situation as opposed to naming it?

Caroline: Absolutely. It was quite challenging, actually, because for me when I started to think about resilience itself, it was all in English, and even for me as the researcher to just think about what it means in a French-speaking context was difficult. It was equally difficult when I was using community- based interpreters, to actually use that term and ask the interpreter to find the equivalent meaning for the person I was interviewing.

So it really came down to exactly what you said: finding some examples and talking about children and talking about strategies that they use to progress in their day-to-day living and how they managed to adapt to their new contexts as refugees living in Australia.

Trish: Caroline, that actually has quite a lot of implications for people doing qualitative research or even quantitative research using interpreters: that if you're struggling with that as a native speaker, I just wonder how much we possibly miss out when we don't have that advantage – when using interpreters.
Caroline: Yeah, that's absolutely right. I think there's an element of data collection that can never be resolved when you’re using an interpreter. I think there's always gonna be that element of, there will be part of it that will not be adequately or accurately conveyed, whether it's from the researcher to the participant or vice versa. It's really difficult. It applies to both working with bicultural workers or community-based interpreters and accredited interpreters.
It's not just about the language and the actual word whether it's in French or in English - it's a completely different frame of mind. It's a cultural frame of reference that gives meaning to a particular word. In my experience, I felt that I missed out on that cultural frame of reference when I didn't know enough about the participant to make sense of what they were saying.

So it definitely had to do with issues beyond the literal interpretation of the word from one language to another. I think it's an issue that hasn't been resolved in research, as you said, whether it's qualitative or quantitative.

Trish: And I think possibly we don't pay enough attention to it is maybe the first step.

Caroline: Yes that's right. As researchers, sometimes we're so focussed on getting the outcomes. It takes a lot of reflexivity to genuinely look at the process and the respect of the person's perspective and what as researchers we are trying to get out of that process.

Trish: Caroline, in your research you talk about everyday resilience. What do you mean by “everyday resilience”?

Caroline: This was one of the main findings of this ethnographic piece of research. One of the assumptions about resilience is that it's a line in the sand that people strive to achieve and it determines whether, when you move from being a non-resilient person to a resilient person…Whereas when we're looking at resilience from an everyday perspective, we're looking at what individuals do each and every day to get through that day.

For example, for the women in this study, it involved getting up in the morning, getting their children ready, going to work, managing community tensions, being involved with other members of the community, going to university for some of them. There were multiple responsibilities. The sense of looking at resilience in the ‘everydayness’ or in the mundane of the everyday life actually gives a different dimension to the concept. It disregards the assumption that resilience is a one-off goal that only a few people can achieve. It's actually saying that everybody has the capacity to be resilient.

The forms of resilience are not necessarily what we would consider as positive outcomes. There are people who are resilient because they drink a lot of alcohol or they take drugs, but it gets through that day or that particular week or that particular period in their life. Of course, there are negative consequences to it, but it's still resilience as they have determined it to be and to be useful in their life at that point in time, if that makes sense.

Trish: Yes it does. So it's whatever coping strategies, regardless of what we think about them that actually helps you tick off another day?

Caroline: That's right. The strategies change over time, so with these women, for example, their ways of being resilient when they were living in refugee camps or had just arrived in Australia, or five years after they arrived in Australia, can look very different. It's all contextual. It depends on the circumstances at the time. It depends on the challenges and the opportunities.

But what was quite amazing with this particular group of women - and it is quite characteristic of refugee communities - is that no matter what was thrown at them, giving up was not what they wanted. They wanted to keep going, particularly for the sake of their children. Their children's wellbeing was the main motivator to keep them going and to figure out how they were gonna pay their bills as single mothers; how they were gonna find a house to rent with large families; how they were gonna find the jobs they wanted, with qualifications not being recognised or language issues.

So with every particular situation, which is why their everyday lives can be so complex, the women had to figure out: how am I gonna get through this next hurdle? Their sense of motivation was very high, because they had gone through pretty traumatic events in their lives prior to coming to Australia. Everything that was thrown at them in the Australian context, they were prepared to tackle it head-on.

Trish: What sort of experiences did these women have? Could you give us an example?

Caroline: In Australia, do you mean?

Trish: Well, maybe the journey that brought them here - but perhaps before and after.

Caroline: The interesting thing about the stories and the narratives that the women chose to share was that there wasn't a lot of focus on their pre-migration experiences initially. When I conducted in-depth interviews, the focus was very much on present challenges: having to raise teenage children on their own as single mothers and having to contend with the changes in their cultural values. Wanting to encourage their children to integrate [into] Australian society - at the same time wanting them to retain their cultural framework.

Also, other everyday worries that's very common to everybody in Australia, like the rising price of petrol or telemarketers who would ring at any point in time in the evenings. So they were very much focussed on discussing their present challenges. The only time when they referred back to the time before they came to live in Australia was when we did some digital stories together. There was a sense of a chronological account of, this is where I came from, and this is how much I've achieved. When they did, they did not give a lot of detail. They would say, for example, how many years they would have spent in a refugee camp and when they left their countries of origin - or when, for most of them being widows, when their husband passed away. These were the key things they talked about.

They didn't talk about trauma, like we usually do when we talk about pre-migration experiences as witnessing violence. I guess it was part of living in a refugee camp, but they were very much focussed on looking onwards and forward.

Trish: Were any of the women in detention centres?

Caroline: No. They were all from African countries, so they came through the offshore resettlement programme. Yes, I think it struck me that the stories that they chose to share were not what I expected. I guess when anybody thinks about working collaboratively with refugee individuals in the context of research, there's a lot of emphasis on the trauma and the torture and the violence that occurs and causes them to become refugees. So I let the women lead the way in the research process. They were quite keen to talk about what was bothering them at the time of research and what they were trying to achieve in the future. They were very much geared towards the future - not so much towards the past.

Trish: Is that the basis of resilience, then? That hope, that future-looking? Or do you think it's that day-to-day behaviours or activities that are the focus?

Caroline: Yes, I think there is a proportion of refugee individuals who live here who are not able to conceptualise the future because they’re very much still concerned with obtaining the language skills, trying to find a job, trying to find a place to live. So they take longer to conceptualise what the future in Australia can look like for them. For the women who are proficient in the English language who were able to have a job and had a place to live in and were looking at studying, that was very much part of how they conceptualised resilience. Resilience was part of all the steps they were putting into place in the present, not only for their own future as women, but also as mothers. They were very much investing in to their children's future, ensuring that the children went to school, went to university, ate well, did some sports and connected with their local community, but also with the Australian community.

We have the group that was more isolated and would honestly take a long time before they could get to this point of thinking, okay, I can make the most of the opportunities that Australia has to offer. I think their sense of resilience was very much based into the simple task of getting up in the morning, looking after their children, attending community events when that was possible or if they could attend English language classes. It was very much based on not thinking too much about the future, because that's scary. There was so much that still needed to happen, but it was about looking at what was achievable in the immediate future, so to speak.

Trish: So were they the people that had less community support or family support?

Caroline: Yes and no. The key factor with the women I worked with was that they were single women: they were either widowed or divorced. It wasn't just the fact that they were widowed or divorced - but it was the fact that they decided they didn't want to remarry and this, the community, didn't approve. So part of the community support was there because they were single and considered as vulnerable, but there was also a strong stigma attached to the fact that they'd decided that they were gonna raise their children on their own without the presence of a man. That's one example of some of the factors linked to resilience that were both stresses and enablers. The community was there as a safety net for the women and their families, and at the same time they were also the cause of some distress for the women, because of the stigma and the ostracizing and the gossiping about them being single and raising children alone.

Trish: You talk about it being a dynamic process. Is there a relationship between the resilience and that sort of stress in their lives?

Caroline: Yes. One of the aspects of resilience that this research challenges is that it's actually a static trait. For example, there's a lot of definitions of resilience that talk about personal strengths or a strong sense of motivation or faith as an enabler to resilience. Whereas the distress that's caused by the community, for example, for single women at times was detrimental to their wellbeing, but at other times it was the very thing that motivated them to keep going.

So I guess the identification of resilience as a dynamic process draws the attention of people to the fact that it's not a cardboard cut-out concept, but it is something that continually evolves and changes and moves forwards and backwards, depending on how the women are faring: what they’re experiencing at the time, whether they experience a lot of support. They’re getting a lot of community reprisal for their ways of living life.

Trish: What about how the Australian community responds to these women? Did that have an influence?

Caroline: Yes, and that worked both ways as well. Something that surprised me a little bit is that the women were very nonchalant about incidents of racism. They would say, ‘oh yeah, these co-workers, they were racist towards me,’ and it was as if it was something they expected. But It was never such a bad situation that they regretted their decision to come and live here.

There was still very much grateful about every opportunity that they’ve had since they arrived in Australia.

At the same time, the women were clever enough to understand that they couldn't just rely on their local communities. So it wasn't just about bonding and social capital. There was a bit of bridging social capital that was happening there, in that they recognised that they needed to connect with some white Australians in the context of NGO workers or TAFE teachers. Once they created those links, these were fundamental to then get the women to find jobs or to continue with further studies. They had a really clear sense of the need to create those links and those networks beyond their immediate local community.

Trish: What sort of racism did they experience?

Caroline: They were simple incidents from co-workers making derogatory remarks in their presence or neighbours not saying hello, or if their children, say, threw a football in the neighbour’s front yard, the neighbours would just collect the ball and not return it. So some of It was based on racism, but some of it was just pure lack of manners.

Trish: Caroline, how does the person-in-environment’ concept work in this research?

Caroline: One of the dangers of conducting research with a small group of individuals or looking at individualistic traits in general is that we tend to forget the context. When we talk about resilience from a person-in-environment perspective, it simply means to look at resilience from a contextual perspective. We cannot separate the person from their environment, and everything that the person does or how the person views the world will be linked to their environment and the circumstances in that environment.

Traits that we could assign to a resilient person in a Western context would look very different in the developing world or in a situation of conflict. By saying that resilience is attached to how the person fits or interacts with their environment, it’s really saying that we should be more critical at how we conceptualise resilience and that there’s an array of factors that will have a strong impact on the frame of reference that determines what’s resilience in a particular person's life.

Trish: So what does all this mean for people working with refugees?

Caroline: It's quite important actually, in the broader approach of not imposing Western-based concepts without a critical outlook on the cultural and social political implications. Also, it can encourage workers to look at forms of resilience in different places. The biggest question that this has prompted for me is whether we have been looking at resilience in the wrong place. Whether resilience has actually been there the whole time, but we were looking at particular aspects that make us miss out on more meaningful ways of being resilient in individual experiences.

The key lesson for social workers is to ensure that that psychological perspective does not dominate. It's still important and useful, but it can be complemented with a more contextual and social cultural perspective to allow ways that we haven't necessarily thought about in individual lives that are linked to resilience to emerge - and to use that field upon those meaningful strategies and coping mechanisms that individuals are already using and that we may miss out on.

Trish: It’s probably really important just to remember, if you are from a Western culture, that it really is a Western perspective. That's the thing that's hitting me, talking to you: that we can bring just so many assumptions with that about psychological perspectives and about what resiliency is and about what it looks like for us and the danger of focussing on that internal activity alone.

Caroline: That's right. The other aspect too is that people from refugee backgrounds are a bit sick and tired of talking about trauma. They actually enjoy the opportunity of talking about the achievements and the ways of getting there; the mechanisms and the strategies that they've already got in place that are actually getting them to travel through each and every day as they already are. The whole narrative on trauma and the negative perception about refugees is something that has a huge influence on the field, whether we know it or not, and whether we like it or not.

So individuals are quite keen now to look at how they can enhance the strategies they already have in place and they came up with themselves, and how they can enhance those strategies to keep moving towards their goals in the future.

Trish: Really it is indicating that a strengths perspective could be most useful?

Caroline: Absolutely. A strengths perspective is very relevant to the refugee context. It's very relevant. It challenges all these assumptions of vulnerability and victimisation that's usually attached to working with refugees. Usually that vulnerability and victimisation is what can motivate someone to work in this field. It's important for anyone who engages in this kind of working in the refugee context to leave those assumptions aside and get to know the individuals and their families and their communities and look at what they are actually achieving - not their deficiencies. There is a lot there that is going on that we may have been overlooking, because of the way that resilience has been traditionally conceptualised as a checklist of whether they are doing this or that, whether they are able to speak English or to get a job.

But there are many many other things that people from refugee backgrounds are achieving and doing so well that is required to understand.
Trish: Caroline, thank you so much. It's been wonderful having you on Podsocs.

Caroline: Pleasure.

[Musical outro 26.56 to END]
Interview ENDS: 27.24