The difficult journey of refugees and the unique toolbox of astronomy to equip them with resilience

“Up in the blue of the cupola shine the stars,
speaking peace, as they always do,
those unchanging friends”. Fridtjof Nansen

War shatters the lives of refugees placing them on a long traumatic journey. There are numerous challenges affecting refugees in different stages of their movement: losses and traumas in their homelands, life-threatening and inhuman experiences during the flee and devastating difficulties in the host countries.

The refugee crisis indeed is a complex one and illustrates the deep impact of wars and conflicts on human development. It gives a glance both into the vulnerability of human beings and into their extraordinary potential.

Below we will look on one hand into many different types of challenges that cause psychological issues and lead to mental health problems among refugees, and on the other hand, the effectiveness of certain coping mechanisms for maintaining their balance and well-being.

Finally, we will consider the relevance of astronomy as a coping mechanism, resilience building and empowering method for this particular group. This will lay informative background for “Astronomy for Mental Health” project interventions. 

The multitude of challenges faced by refugees and displaced people

“We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life.
We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world.
We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings…”.Hannah Arendt

There are more than 82 million forcibly displaced people in the world. Out of 26.4 million people with refugee status, around half are under 18 (UNHCR).

If one is to categorize the multitude of challenges facing refugees, there would still be many: war, loss, separation, violence, social exclusion, deprivation, stress, etc. 80% of refugees experience six or more highly traumatic events before and during their displacement (Refugees’ Mental Health, 2017).

War, conflicts, insecurity force people to leave their homes. The loss of home and familiar support networks is in many cases accompanied by the loss of their loved ones. It is particularly traumatic for younger people to experience the rupture of the family, become separated from their caretakers, and be deprived of networks and opportunities (With us & For us, 2020).

Violence is part of the whole process of displacement. It includes both the physical and mental harm lived by refugees themselves (sexual abuse, torture, inhuman treatment, detention, trafficking) or their experience of witnessing it (On this journey, no one cares if you live or die, 2019). Younger people are often exposed to abuse, exploitation, detention and police harassment. Refugee girls (The invisible faces of war, 2009) and women experience numerous life-threatening events and abuse, and become weapons of war. Violence does not end when refugees arrive in new countries.

Social exclusion is the reality which refugees face in transit and host countries. It can take the forms of discrimination, racism and xenophobia, generate tensions with host population and leads to more violence, sufferings and deprivations (We believe in youth, 2016). Deprivations range from access to vital goods and services, housing, to education, employment, development opportunities and more. Younger people are particularly affected by exclusion and its consequences, suffering from wasted years of life, gap between childhood and adulthood and untapped potential.

Identity related challenges complicate the everyday life of refugees even further. These include barriers determining their legal status and obtaining necessary documents, as well as related to their cultural identity and language.

Mental health issues among refugees are the inevitable outcome of extraordinary violent events. They continue to accompany the lives of refugees in the form of high levels of daily stress, fear of return and deportation, as well as uncertainty about the future. After displacement refugees remain in the state of limbo, their lives in waiting (Life on Hold) as long as it takes. Meanwhile, emotional disturbances such as anger, irritability, overwhelm, frustration continue to be parts of their difficult life, as well as lack of motivation, sadness, hopelessness, emptiness.

Owing to such experiences, refugees face heightened risk for developing certain mental disorders, such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), psychoses, substance use problems, conduct disorder. The prevalence rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are reported to be particularly high (around 31% ) among refugees, while some studies calculate even higher rates (up to 43-44%) (Rebecca Blackmore et al, 2020).  The prevalence of these disorders is much higher compared to the host population (WHO).

Effectiveness of certain coping mechanisms to maintain the well-being of refugees

“While every refugee’s story is different and their anguish personal, they all share a common thread of uncommon courage – the courage not only to survive, but to persevere and rebuild their shattered lives”. António Guterres

Despite all the challenges that refugees have to go through, they reveal a remarkable capacity to survive and thrive and be striking examples of human resilience (Refuge and Resilience, 2014).

This is possible due to some factors that buffer against adversity related to refugee experiences, (employment, education, language proficiency, etc.) (Browne et al, 2021), and certain coping mechanisms which enhance the psychological well-being of refugees. 

Social support (from family, friends, community, local organizations), faith, religion and spirituality (rituals, prayer, teachings, meditation, worship), cultural practices, and hobbies/recreational activities (sports, arts, etc.) are among the main coping mechanisms which prove effective for refugee mental health. Certain cognitive and behavioral strategies are also greatly beneficial, among which we see positive thinking, problemsolving, distraction techniques, cultivation of hope, future aspirations, finding meaning, belonging and purpose, affirmations of inner strength, mood enhancing activities, etc. (Posselt et al, 2018). 

Even small opportunities, such as shared learning (Common Threads, 2013) or other development activities can have positive effects on such serious mental health problems such as PTSD, depression and anxiety among newly resettled refugees. Meanwhile, the absence of such interventions can lead to decline of their mental health status. These activities create a sense of community and collective which becomes a protective enclave for celebrating their language and cultural traditions.

According to UNHCR, sports and cultural activities (Global Compact on Refugees) can play an important role in social development and well-being of refugee children (both boys and girls), adolescents and youth. It is recommended to view displacement as a unique chance for girls to learn and gain skills, which they might never have had before (The invisible faces of war, 2009).

These strategies enable to avoid over-pathologizing and over-treating refugees, moving from trauma towards building resilience and empowerment.

The complexity of refugee crisis and the profound toolbox of astronomy

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual”. Carl Sagan

Many coping mechanisms that enhance refugee well-being are an inherent part of astronomy. In fact, for many years the astronomical community has reached out to people with diverse formats and shared the profound toolbox of astronomy with many different groups, including refugees. These formats include but are not limited to the following: learning activities, skills development, fostering of cultural identity, social inclusion, establishing clubs, arts and recreational activities, inspiration activities, and more.

The effects of such activities on mental wellbeing has been found in research (Dark Nature) as well as shared by individuals (BBC). More research is needed to assess the effect of astronomy activities on the well-being of specific groups. Nevertheless, looking into the refugee experiences closely reveals interesting aspects about the relevance of astronomy for this group, which will be taken into account for “Astronomy for Mental Health” project interventions.