Open access peer-reviewed chapter

Stories of Struggle and Resilience: Parenting in Three Refugee Contexts

Written By

Alia Assali, Manar Younis, Nicole Sager, Marios Dakis and Deborah Young

Submitted: 22 September 2021 Reviewed: 21 February 2022 Published: 02 April 2022

DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.103827

From the Edited Volume

Parenting - Challenges of Child Rearing in a Changing Society

Edited by Sayyed Ali Samadi

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One in four children around the world live in a conflict or disaster zone and crises can last for decades. Globally, refugee situations have become protracted with more children born to refugee parents spending their childhood, and at times their entire lives outside their country of origin. The challenges refugees face before, during, and after being displaced have serious consequences for families. Displacement often occurs multiple times and includes tremendous daily uncertainty. If families resettle, the process of adapting to new cultures requires and fosters remarkable resilience and navigational skills. This chapter tells the stories of how parents navigate challenging circumstances in three contexts: refugees within their own country, refugee camps outside of their country, and refugees who have resettled in a host country.


  • refugee
  • parenting
  • resettlement
  • refugee camps
  • resilience

1. Introduction

The aim of this chapter is to provide the reader with a deeper understanding of current realities in refugee contexts and the adversity that children, parents, and families face. We discuss parenting and early childhood protective factors and review factors that cause families to flee from their home. We advocate for the need to consider parenting through an anthropological, cross-cultural, asset-based lens. Based on first-hand accounts of individuals in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States, this chapter explores how parent/caregiver circumstances and well-being impact their ability to parent in emergency settings and the factors and strategies that reduce negative impact and foster resilience. We highlight the voices of parents navigating challenging circumstances in three contexts: refugees within their own country, refugee camps outside of their country, and refugees who have resettled in a host country. While similarities exist across the three groups, it is important to understand how their experiences and challenges differ if order to best meet their needs. The recommendations provided are relevant to policy makers, nonprofit organizations, aid agencies, mental health professionals, educators and educational institutions who can help families foster resilience at various stages of the refugee and/or resettlement process.

1.1 The impacts of living in refugee contexts

Approximately 28 million children are displaced by armed conflicts and violence around the world [1]. Where violent conflicts and unpredictable circumstances and situations are the norm, the lives of young children and their families are significantly disrupted and parents and caregivers report struggling to offer the sensitive and consistent care that young children need for their healthy development [1]. Only about 3% of humanitarian crisis funding goes toward education and a fraction of that to early childhood needs, parenting skills and protective factors [2]. The challenges refugees face before, during, and after displacement have serious consequences for families. Families with children between the ages of 0 and 8 are the largest group affected by today’s global emergencies (war, conflict, natural disasters) and often face the most dire consequences [3]. Apart from death and injury, consequences include displacement, malnutrition, increased prenatal and infant mortality, family separation, sexual exploitation and abuse, trafficking, impoverished living conditions, contagious diseases, reduced life expectancy, and adverse psychological, social, and economic impact. Distinguishing between the effects of emergencies, pre-migration stress, separation from family, displacement stress, socio economic hardships, and acculturation difficulties during resettlement is challenging [4]. Adverse prenatal impacts include exposure to prolonged stress, environmental toxins, nutritional deficits, boredom, and depression. These experiences can chemically alter the epigenetics and the genes in the fetus or young child, which may shape the individual temporarily or permanently [5, 6]. Violence and maternal depression can impair child development and mental health [7]. Prolonged stress during pregnancy and/or early childhood can have even greater toxic stress impact and, in the absence of protective parental and caregiving relationships, may result in permanent genetic changes in developing brain cells. Research shows that toxins and stress from pregnant mothers cross the placenta into the umbilical cord [8], leading to premature and low birth weight babies [9] which increases the stress of parents and caregivers with additional parenting requirements. The severity of the impact depends on diverse factors including previous life experiences, coping ability, severity of the trauma, age, gender, poverty, education and support from family, friends, and professionals [10, 11, 12, 13]. These negative impacts undermine the physical, emotional, cognitive, and social development of young children. Apart from physical injury, the loss of family, friends, and neighbors can severely disorient parents and caregivers and the loss of home and possessions disrupts daily routines, further undermining the foundation for a healthy and productive life [14, 15]. According to the Palestinian Counseling Centre, Save the Children [16], even 6 months after the demolition of their homes, young Palestinian children suffered from withdrawal, somatic complaints, depression/anxiety, unexplained pain, breathing problems, attention difficulties and violent behavior [16]. Parents and caregivers experience loss of loved ones that can not only cause trauma, but also result in lost caregiver support. Adverse early experiences often stem from inequity between and within populations. The impacts of poverty, inadequate cognitive stimulation, stunting, iodine deficiency, and iron-deficiency anemia prevent millions of young children from attaining their developmental potential. Though Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and wellness data has become more prevalent, much of the research samples populations from high-income countries. ACEs can and do affect all children and gaps in the data exist. However, a few recent studies on ACEs from countries around the world have begun to shed light on methods for measuring ACEs in low-resource settings to begin establishing baselines for the prevalence and burden of ACEs across contexts [17, 18]. A deeper examination of parenting in emergency and conflict situations remains crucial as research suggests that traumatic events experienced before the age of 11 are three times more likely to result in serious emotional and behavioral difficulties than those experienced later in life [19]. Healthy parenting is extremely challenging when parents, caregivers and children are exposed to violence, uncertainty and lack services and resources to support their wellbeing, [20, 21]. Having a clear understanding of both adverse and protective factors is essential in proactively supporting families who have experienced refugee contexts.

1.2 Parenting and Early Childhood protective factors

Research increasingly focuses on strengths and protective factors that bolster resilience in life [22, 23]. Not all children with emergency situations such as conflict and natural disaster exposure develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Dempsey, [10]) and reactions may vary over the first days or weeks following a crisis; mainly dependent on the parents or caregiver’s emotional state and availability to their children. Consistent, predictable, quality care can alleviate the psychosocial impact of conflict and disasters by giving children a sense of normalcy, stability, structure and hope for the future. However, emergency and conflict situations often lack quality services and resources. In most conflicts, care and education infrastructure are often targets of violence because of the stability and support it provides. Pre-schools and schools are often destroyed or closed due to hazardous conditions, depriving families and children the opportunity to learn and socialize in a safe place with a sense of routine [24, 25]. An affectionate family, positive shared emotional interactions, social support, shared ideology/religion, and a sense of community during adversity contribute to the development of family and child coping skills, mental health, and academic achievement, [26]. Zahr [27] found a relationship between the availability of parents and the development of secure attachment in Lebanese kindergarten children exposed to war. Barber [28, 29, 30] showed that young Palestinian and Balkan children’s emotional well-being and development were protected from the negative impact of military violence by positive and protective relationships with caregivers. Palestinian children whose parents used positive styles of comforting were found to be resilient, and those who had loving, non-rejecting parents were more creative and efficient [31, 32, 33]. When exposed to frightening events, resilient children can regain their secure base by bonding and being with loving, protective, and responsive caregivers. Massad et al. [34] studied mental health of young children in Gaza and found that resilience in children was associated with the parents’ or caregivers’ health and a higher maternal level of formal education. Studies show that children who are supported by a caring and responsive parent and/or caregiver at a young age, cope with stress more effectively [35]. A supportive relationship can reduce a child’s reaction to stress and help to build the foundational resilience fundamental to long-term health development [36].

It is essential to understand protective factors to promote strategies and supports that foster resilience and reduce negative consequences. With an increasing number of refugees around the globe, and an ever-deepening understanding of neuroscience of early childhood adverse influences, we argue that more research is needed so policy makers, nonprofit organizations, aid agencies, mental health professionals, educators and educational institutions can make informed and culturally relevant decisions/policies that truly help families be resilient at various stages of the refugee and/or resettlement process. While there may be some aspects of the refugee experience that are universal, we include three populations with different socio-political histories because their challenges and needs can differ. As very few studies have specifically examined parenting in refugee contexts, this exploratory study highlights the voices of parents navigating difficult circumstances in three contexts: refugees within their own country, refugee camps outside of their country, and refugees who have resettled in a host country.


2. Theoretical framework–defining parenting through a cross-cultural lens

Parenting beliefs and practices vary with roles, familial relationships and expectations influenced by political, social, cultural, economic, religious, and community situations and cosmologies. Constructs that very across cultures include: the way moral context for parenting is negotiated in families and passed down to the children, definitions of good parenting, reproductive rights and resources, the relationship between intimate family life and the wider culture, and roles for parenting and work outside the home.

“Scholarly” definitions of parenting can differ from that of experienced parents with multi-generational knowledge and skills. In the Western World over the last century, the importance of expert recommendations for parenting practices has been elevated [37]. For example, TV shows and commercials in the 1930s promoted “expert”-informed mothering as a methodological occupation that should be learned [38] whereas previous generations of new mothers learned parenting skills through informal networks within community, and family members. Although current North American parenting discourse elevates experts who prescribe parenting practice, we must critically examine this notion of “expertise” devoid of contextual and cultural considerations.

Anthropological perspectives of parenting see cultural variability as historically and socially situated. As Mead [39, 40] states the tasks of bearing children and parenting have similarities the world over; babies are born and require warmth, nourishment, protection from predators, and an induction into social mores and systems. Yet how these fundamental tasks are carried out varies widely. Hays’ [41] and Furedi’s [42] work suggests that the role and meaning of parenthood has changed recently and child rearing involves a growing range of responsibilities and activities not previously considered dimensions of parenting. Contemporary, middle-class parenting in the U.S. experience continuous change, deemphasizing traditional kinship roles and prioritizing children’s academic achievement, extra-curricular, and social activities. Typically, the onus to be apprised of school expectations and scheduling falls on the mother and/or women of the family. Thus, adaptation to new cultural contexts must consider how child rearing tasks shift, especially when many families’ kinship networks are reduced in refugee and resettlement contexts.

Infants everywhere have the same biological needs and must succeed at many of the same developmental tasks. Parents/caregivers guide them in developing their first social bonds, learning to express and read human emotions, and making sense of the physical world. The amount of interaction between parents and offspring is greatest in infancy, a time when we are especially susceptible to the influences of experience, i.e. culture, language, and trauma [43]. Almost all young infants’ worldly knowledge is acquired from interactions they have with their parents/caregivers. Social competence in children has origins in specific socioemotional characteristics of the parent–infant relationship [44]. Refugee children carry these socio-cultural influences long after they leave their country of origin. Factors such as conflict, migration, relocation, and the loss of kinship relationships and community stability have a direct impact on child development. Most contemporary parenting literature originates from Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic countries and the fields of Education, Early Childhood and Human Development sorely lack a global perspective on parenting.

In the US, many parenting practices align with how children will succeed according to the standards held by public schools and other state institutions. The standards typically reify a Caucasian, middle-class values and ways of life. U.S. Media, schools, and public institutions reinforce these norms of child behaviors. When parents resettle in the US, many enrichment programs are provided for parents, with an underlying agenda to reprogram families’ childrearing practices. Such programs can alienate refugee families if they are pressured to adopt different parenting norms for discipline and guidance and different cultural norms regarding ethnic identity and individualism.

When these external forces (rather than familial, community and historical practices) shape parenting expectations, a mismatch and/or tension can arise. Parents may resist these influences that will change their parenting practices and strive to keep their values, beliefs and cultural and linguistic identities alive. Cultural bias and discrimination can occur, which adds to social alienation However, some families adopt new modes of parenting and readily apply new knowledge in their home lives. This often requires a shift in childrearing priorities and poses challenges for families. Our understanding of enculturation and acculturation as a multidimensional family and community-level construct is key to understanding the diversity of refugee and immigrant groups.

A global perspective of parenting recognizes the impact of globalization and global power inequities. As people migrate around the world, localized constructs reveal great diversity in what is considered “good parenting”. As refugees navigate new realities, they do so within the context of a host country with greater global dominance. Thus, parents’ ideas of values, priorities, belief systems, kinship and the roles of kinship, are challenged. Evidence suggests that parenting is becoming more child-centered, resource intensive, and focused on the maximization of individual achievement potential in countries with rising or strong capitalist economies such as Chile [45], Brasil [46], the US, Canada, Europe, and Australia. Schooling in these contexts often focuses on cultivating workforce readiness, citizens who embody individualism, and economic social mobility [47]. As parents/caregivers remake themselves and their families through processes of crossing borders, they contend with the hegemony of national and state visions of “best parenting practices” that can position them as deficient and “at risk” of not succeeding.


3. Methodology

The authors (the term authors and interviewers are used interchangeably in this section) used purposeful sampling, selecting parents from refugee populations where they lived. Purposive sampling is a non-probability sampling method when the respondents are limited. The respondents were from a homogeneous sample, and shared a refugee status, similar context (same camp or relocation community), and shared language. The respondents volunteered to be interviewed and freely agreed to share their stories and opinions. Purposeful sampling was used to select parents who were knowledgeable about and experienced in parenting in a refugee context. The criteria for respondents was that they were parents, refugees, and have moved from the home or origin.

An unstructured focused interview was used as the data collection format. Interviews were used to collect the data and parents were encouraged to reflect on their experiences and offer their opinions. The authors first jointly developed guiding interview questions, taking care to phrase the questions to reduce the feeling of intrusion and to recognize the resilience families have.

The interviews started by the author reading a confidentiality statement. Not all respondents were literate so oral agreement was taken. Due to the sensitive nature of the settings, no names were ever used in the notes. The interviews were conversational and respondents were able to express in their own way and pace, with minimal interruptions from the interviewers. Interviewers respectfully listened to respondents and if respondent deviated from the main topic, the interviewer gently refocused the respondent through the use of probing questions. Interviewers were experienced professionals well versed in contingent follow-up during the interview. By using guiding questions, interviewers at each site had flexibility to be responsive to the various contexts and to avoid interview fatigue. People living in adverse conditions are often asked to share their stories which can be re-traumatizing and does not provide them with any particular benefit.

The guiding questions included topics of: family makeup and structures in the place people left, shifts required due to family movement or relocation, major influences in parenting practices, parenting experiences in place of origin compared to the new place, willingness to ask for help, coping mechanisms, persistence, and attitudes. An asset-based lens was used to center resilience and parents were asked about what parenting support or resources would be beneficial. Parents were also invited to share their feelings about their decisions to make a move.

Interviewers took short field notes that were shared with the interviewees who had opportunities to expand their notes within 24 hours of the interviews. We did not record the interviews, as the respondents in all three contexts had concerns abound safety and local authorities. Stories were collected in the respondents first language and in the case of Colorado, interpreters from the parent group and chosen by the parent respondents themselves were used. The use of semi-structured interviews allowed us to collect stories and expand our understanding of parenting in three different refugee settings. The authors wanted to glean insights to increase refugee service providers’ (NGOs, INGOs, policy makers, community resource services, educators) knowledge and efficacy. Table 1 outlines the demographic data for the interviewees.

Country Gender Age range of interviewees
Female Male Age 15–23 Age 24–44 Age 45–60
Palestine 7 4 3 = F | 1 MM 4 = F | 3 = M
Greece (16 families) 42 16 22
16 = F | 6 = M
14 = F | 6 = M
12 = F | 4 = M
Colorado 66 8 8 = F 46 = F | 4 = M 12 = F | 4 = M

Table 1.

Respondents’ demographic information by country, age, and gender.

The interviewers knew the respondents and lived in or near the same geographical areas as the respondents. In Palestine, the interviewers had known the respondents through previous work or through friends of friends. A number of respondents also sent out a request to parents in their community to include other community members. In Greece, the interviewer worked with the refugees in the camps. The interviewer asked for volunteers and 16 families agreed to share their stories. The 16 families interviewed had at least 3 family members in each family. The families were also asylum seekers living in the camps. The parents and children were involved in the conversation, with the parents responding over 80% of the questions. In Colorado, the interviewers were working with a group of 85 refugee parents, and 74 parents volunteered to share their stories. There were eight males and sixty-six females. The age range was from 27 to 52. All interviews were conducted in an informal setting, interviewers went to the respondent location.

The interviewers were the authors of the chapter. The interview data were first compiled and coded by the in-country authors, going line by line of the interview notes. They created and inductively assigned codes to categorize the data from their county. They then categorized the codes. Subsequently, all the authors met to discuss the codes and categories and agreed upon three major themes based on the patterns that emerged. Authors outside of the country depended on cultural interpretation from in-country authors for clarification when needed by the.

Authors noted similarities and differences in the stories of individuals in the three contexts with some themes cutting across cultural and contextual variations and others being unique. In the case of Colorado there were three groups with different countries of origin. The authors in Colorado returned to the respondents to reflect on their understanding and interpretation of the data sets to ensure their stories were represented correctly. At the end of the interviews in Colorado, representatives from each of the three groups came together to discuss the similarities and differences found in their stories. The respondents shared (using interpreters) that even though there were great cultural differences between the three countries of origin, that their experiences in resettling in Colorado were quite similar.


4. Types of conditions that cause people to flee

Though not the specific focus of this chapter, we believe that from a social justice and human rights stance, the multiple reasons people are forced to or choose to leave their homes must be named. It is highly problematic to only center narratives of the refugee experience and where people go without highlighting why they flee. Refugee contexts are symptoms of a global humanitarian problem with historical, economic and socio-political roots that must be analyzed and researched if we wish to mitigate the problem. Persecution comes in many forms and include religious, political, gender, sexual orientation, internal unrest, and gang violence in addition to an increase in climate change refugees [48]. People often make the difficult choice to leave their home in dire economic situations that induce hardship and limit their opportunities for the future. War, civil unrest, and occupation are major impetuses for fleeing and the communities described in this chapter fall into this latter category. Regardless of the reason, making the decision to leave is high-risk and a significant stressor on families and parenting. The following sections outline three distinct contexts of displacement (In-Country Refugee Camps, Out-of-Country Refugee Camps, and Resettlement to and New Country) followed by a findings section. The chapter concludes by comparing and contrasting the three contexts and recommendations.


5. Context

5.1 Palestine context

In Palestine the refugee population continues to grow, and some families have lived in a refugee camp for over 70 years. There are 58 Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Palestinian refugee children and families are especially at risk with most living in refugee camps rife with ongoing conflict, violence, and discrimination. Palestinian families lack representation of their rights, experience overcrowding and lack resources and basic services such as education and health care [49]. UNHCR estimates that the average length of major protracted refugee situations has increased from 9 years in 1993 to 17 years at the end of 2003 to [50]. Until the recent Syrian crisis, one in three refugees in the world are Palestinian. The Syrian refugee situation echoes much of the Palestinian plight. Identifying both successes and gaps can provide information to better support the unique needs of families living in refugee camps throughout the world.

Many of the camps were created in 1948. More were added after the wars in 1967 and 1973 and more recently after the war in Syria for Syrian Palestinians. Palestinians are in a unique situation as United Nations Relief and Works agency for Palestinian refugees [49] was created just for refugees from Palestine. They define a refugee from Palestine as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period of June 1st 1946, to May 15th 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict [49].” The descendants of Palestinian refugee males, including adopted children, are also eligible for registration. The Agency began operations in 1950 to address the needs of about 750,000 Palestine refugees. Today, some 5 million Palestinian refugees are eligible for UNRWA services. The 1951 Convention for Refugees focused on people who had lost their homes and livelihoods because of World War II. The revised 1967 Protocol eliminated time limits and geographical boundaries. Though the definition of a Palestinian refugee was originally a stopgap measures for a temporary problem, laws have not been changed in this protracted situation.

The stories in this section come from camps in the West Bank, where about 775,000 refugees live. The camps are overcrowded, lack basic infrastructures such as roads or sanitation, and often during times of crisis, can go months without electricity. Even when electricity is available, it is inconsistent. Unemployment and under employment levels are high and typically half of a family’s income goes just to food. Many families depend on the income of family and friends working in Israel. The frequent raids on Palestinian towns, refugee camps, and villages result in no predictability or security for people in the West Bank and Gaza. Despite the lack of infrastructure, trained teachers, and access to school, the Palestinians in Palestine have one of the highest literacy rates in the Middle East [51]. This resilience is even more remarkable considering that Israeli Military can block children from attending school at any time and have entered schools and taken children to prison. UNRWA provides educational resources for half a million children in the various Palestinian refugee camps. The insufficiency of international donations became starkly clear when the US cut $300 million from UNRWA’s budget and many schools in the camps were closed, classes were combined and teachers were laid off [52].

5.2 Greece context

Greece has been struggling to deal with the massive influx of migrants from war-torn nations of the Middle East and Africa who are experiencing deplorable conditions in detention centers [53, 54]. Greece currently hosts approximately 60,000 refugees with about 40,000 on the mainland and 20,000 on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Kos, Samos and Leros. Since 2015, people fleeing conflict in the Middle East and South and Central Asia viewed Greece as a possible entry point to safety and Europe. Today, Greece has become a place to hold people seeking asylum. The European Union currently has adopted border restrictions and other edicts that prevent people seeking sanctuary from entering Europe. For various political and COVID-related reasons, the refugees in Greece can no longer legally travel to other parts of Europe. Therefore, many of the refugees are likely to remain in the country resulting in Greece shouldering much of the responsibility for those seeking refuge and safety.

The camps are overcrowded conditions and lack basic amenities. In cold months, refugees have built fires in their tents which lead to fatalities as well as health conditions. Moria camp on Lesbos was built for 2200 people, however, until the fire in September 2020, 18,300 people were living in the camp. In addition, unaccompanied minors, women traveling with young children are especially vulnerated and need protection from discrimination, inadequate medical care, violence, gender-based violence, and trafficking.

Those seeking asylum and not living in camps are held in detention centers or have moved to urban areas. Those in the urban areas rarely find work to support their families [55, 56]. Integration is key to ensuring refugees and asylees build successful lives in their new home. This is a big challenge in any country and exacerbated in Greece because of its ongoing economic difficulties. The detention centers are overcrowded and lack sanitary conditions, “all significantly below international and national standards and may amount to inhuman or degrading treatment” according to the 2021 Amnesty International Greece 2020 report. Almost all the refugees have witnessed or directly experienced violence, have been traumatized and require psychosocial support, medical aid and other human services. Greece and Italy cannot be expected to bear this responsibility on their own.

5.3 US resettlement context

Resettlement is not a decision that families make lightly, as a refugee typically cannot return to their home country for years, or sometimes forever. Resettlement often entails permanent separation from friends and relatives. Parents make tremendous sacrifices to escape war and violence, and to seek a safe place to raise their family. More than 3 million refugees have been resettled in the United States since 1975 [57]. Refugees arriving in a new country face a multitude of changes. Often highly educated professionals such as doctors end up driving taxis, or professors work in retail. Working these temporary, low-paying jobs adversely impacts individuals’ professional identity. Being resettled, people come with hope and perhaps dreams, but loss of family, friends, and homes bring challenges even among that hope. Refugee families have often survived atrocities beyond imagination and their oppression does not end with the initial flight.

Family adjustment in a country of resettlement can be quite difficult. Family members are often reluctant to discuss assaults and other harmful acts, as they can face ostracism from their family, other refugees, and host communities.

To survive and ‘fit in’, parents/caregivers who are resettling may adopt and adapt superficially to the messages of institutional and state agents, but at the same time remake these messages and transform them into ideas that are more culturally comfortable [58]. Due to the economic stress refugees and asylees face, women report finding themselves in a particularly stressful position. The families typically need both parents to work outside the home to pay for their bills.

Refugees who resettle in the U.S. have a wide range of experiences. No matter where refugees land, it is best if they are met at the airport when they arrive and are oriented and welcomed to their new home. Families must start over where life is completely different. They have left their family and friends behind, and many families have witnessed and/or experienced violence, war, unsanitary conditions, and food insecurity. Unfortunately, many people in the U.S. see refugees as people who pose a threat to: national security, jobs and economic stability, their children’s exposure to diversity. Additionally, negative media portrayal of immigrants contribute to deficit stereotypes and religion discrimination toward Muslims was fomented in the US’s last administration [59].

Some refugees have special immigrant visas, such as offered to Afghans and Iraqis who assisted the U.S. military forces in their home countries and who now face retribution. Refugees without special immigrant visas are subject to intense scrutiny, including multiple interviews, ongoing background checks and biometric checks run through Interpol’s international police databases. Refugees must do interviews with U.S. Homeland Security agents who often apply arbitrary criteria. (For example, if the agent does not like the way you talk or the way you dress, you can be denied entry) [60]. Each refugee receives a one-time payment of $1125 to set up their new life in a new country and aid agencies provide acclimation support for the first 90 days in the country. Employment assistance lasts 180 days, or until a refugee is offered the first available job. Refugees are required to pay back the airfare for the flight to the United States, and few airlines provide discounts.


6. Findings

We hope our findings will inform future research on how to best meet the needs of refugees. Considered. The authors first coded the data individually and then worked together to reconcile differences. From that phase of data reduction, three main themes emerged.

Each of the three themes were a type of stressor for which there were subthemes. The first theme, infrastructure, refers to the external factors such as the dearth of or limited access to services. Second, cultural differences emerged as a theme and encompasses factors such as language, discrimination, values, norms, and roles. The third theme of mental health consists of the different intra and interpersonal socio-emotional stressors of various refugee and resettlement experiences. Table 2 provides an overview of findings for which kinds of stressors impacted each context.

Mental Health Context Cultural Differences Context Infrastructure Context
ACES P, C Differences in acceptable behavioral norms P, G, C Accessing education P, G, C
Boredom P, G, C Knowing cultural norms for accessing services P, G, C Accessing health services P, G, C
Camp conditions P, G Child rearing challenges P, G, C No or few basic services P, G
Chronic pain/somatic complaints P, G, C Gender role shifts P, G, C No or few education services P, G
Coping strategies P, G, C Health practices unfamiliarity P, G, C No or few health, dental, mental health services P, G
Depression P, G, C Education levels P, G, C Noises P, G, C
Discrimination P, G, C Host country animosity G, C, Occupation - soldiers and settler P
Economic instability P, G, C Language barriers P, G, C Overcrowding P, G, C
Fatigue P, G, C Loss of respect for elders P, G, C Safety P, G, C
Fear (Occupation and raids) P Religious differences G, C Sanitation P, G
Isolation P, G, C Social Networking P, G, C
Lack of purpose P, G, C
Not enough time to complete daily tasks P, G, C
Unpredictability/uncertainty P, G, C

Table 2.

Major themes, patterns within the theme, identified within country, P = Palestine, G = Greece, C = Colorado.

6.1 Palestine findings

Through interviews with 11 parents (seven females and four males aged 24–60 years) the patterns that emerged included some overlap with the other two field sites and some that were unique to Palestine. Regarding the infrastructure theme, all parents mentioned overcrowded conditions. As for cultural differences, respondents reported that their children were losing respect for their parents as they did not obey them as they obeyed their parents when growing up. In terms of the mental health theme, six of the seven women felt isolated as their husbands worked all day and many times outside the camp. All parents reported that their situation felt uncontrollable, they were fatigued and struggled to be patient with their children. Nine of the 11 parents reported that they faced boredom and lack of meaningful ways to spend time. All three respondent groups reported the need for social and mental health support.

The unique pattern that emerged from all in Palestine was the impact of occupation. They expressed daily fear of not knowing if everyone in the family would return home from work or school, or if they would be woken in the middle of the night by soldiers and family members taken. Ongoing uncertainty of daily life and dwindling hope of returning to their homes permeated the stories. All parents in the Palestine groups believe that education is the most important thing in the lives of the children. One of the respondents was from a family that has lived in the camp for five generations, still holding the keys from their home as a sign of hope. He stated:

I am a 34 years man, married for 10 years, I have 5 daughters and a son, the eldest has 9 years, and the youngest children are one-month old twins. I live inside Askar camp, to which I feel so proud, despite its bad details, such as overcrowdedness, small apartments with lack of priacy. We are the grandsons of the generation who were forced to leave their houses and lands, where they used to live happy and in peace, to camp life with all its challenges, suffering and limited potential.

A different parent reported what provided them the resilience to continue to move forward. “My life inside the camp is special, safe, and warm. I had never thought that my life out of it would be better than it is, I have nice neighbors and relations that make me very privileged and lucky woman … .my life inside the camps gave me an evidence that the good people are being good regardless where they live. I learned a lot from my friends in the women’s center, who taught me how to spend my time doing useful things that make life valuable.”

When asked to share more about this response, the respondent stated it was very important to do purposeful things. From this response, the interviewers ask other parents about how they filled their time. People who felt they had purposeful work showed more ability to adapt to adversity and increased resilience. In addition, having at least 2 close friends outside the family was positively correlated to increase resilience. Three women reported how their attitude toward more conventional gender roles had changed due to the challenges of the occupation, and had helped in terms of their ability to address the adverse situation they live in One woman reported

After my daughters had finished their universities and started working, I changed my attitude towards women's work outside her home, as I started to realize the work’s positive impact on their characters, and lives, opposite to the past, as I was afraid of leaving home.

Another woman responded joining a women’s center activities positively impacted their physical and mental health and helped them overcome challenges. We see changes in terms of gender roles, and also the impact of having purposeful work to reduce the fears that align with occupation.

6.2 Greece findings

In Greece, the interviewer worked with the refugees in the camps. The camps are a temporary holding place until the families have been provided permission to move on. People typically stay in the camps anywhere from one to 3 years. The interviewer spoke with 16 asylum-seeking families. The parents and children were involved in the conversation, with the parents responding over 80% of the questions. The theme of infrastructure issues was prevalent in the Greece context with lack of basic services exacerbating mental health issues.

One parent reported:

My son has been eating his nails since our arrival to the camp. We try to explain to our children with patience and calmness but then we get tired and we release our frustration on them. There are no schools and playgrounds for children to spend their time and they get bored. The camp is dirty and full of risks, the children need someone to supervise them all the time. They fall and get injured and get infections.

All the respondents reported they wanted their children to have educational experiences, yet in the camp there were very few educational opportunities and most of those were informal. All reported unsanitary conditions, overcrowding, and lack of health care. Currently, food is being withheld with children comprising 40% of the camp population. This lack of infrastructure exacerbates mental health challenges [61, 62].

In terms of the theme of cultural differences, one pattern unique to Greece was how the conflict the families tried to escape seemed to follow them in the camps. There are people from other areas of conflict, many fled the same conflict, but on different sides, continuing the violence and fear from which they fled. Additionally, respondents reported high hostility between local Greeks and the refugees. Accessing benefits and sustaining hope of resettlement is challenging. Changes in gender roles due to the loss of family members and deteriorating respect for elders and parents contributed to familial stress. Over 90% of the adults reported that the children do not obey and listen to parents as was expected of them when they were young. Few social networks exist in the camps in Greece, leaving families feeling isolated and lacking a sense of belonging.

As for the mental health theme, the main patterns that emerged included parents being tired and worn out from being on the move and the uncertainty of their future. There is nothing to do in the camp, the children were very bored and the adults did not have the ability to engage and have patience with the children and were worried about the long-term impact on their children. One family reported:

Look at my wife, she is 25 years old but from all this condition she has grey hair growing and became depressed. We decided to bring one more child but the conditions are becoming even worse for children. I just want a peaceful life and a ceiling above my head to protect my children, I want them to go to school and to feel safe.There was however a positive exception to this from one of the fathers.

We are both from Afghanistan. I am 27 and my wife is 24. We have one child. First, we do not have a safe space to take our children and no kindergarten. We are both young and not experienced to work with children and to teach them. We need support on how to improve children’s educational and social skills. We have a child who is sensitive to sounds and when she hears children screaming and yelling this affects her and she becomes aggressive and starts yelling. The noises in this camp are disturbing her. We used to live with another family in the same tent. We did not have privacy and my child did not have a space to play. When the other children were speaking loudly she was behaving aggressively and started fighting and hitting them. We as parents try to calm her and hug her. I built this (showed the interviewer) room outside of the tent especially for her in order to calm and play. In Afghanistan I was a construction worker and I used to make statues. I built this safe space for my child in order to feel safe and be calm. Many times I gather other children in order to play together and learn. I enjoy gardening. I would have built a garden near the tent but I would need a lot of material to prepare something that is nice for my family.

A family from the Democratic Republic of the Congo reported:

Being a parent here is really difficult, we came all this way in order to secure a good future for our children. We want them to go to school and feel secure. We want our children to feel safe. I thought the EU was safe! All families reported boredom and how stressful it was to stay calm in the camp. They reported losing their patience and taking the situation out on their children. Parents varied in using coping mechanisms successfully, though they realized the need for them. A family from the Democratic Republic of the Congo shared, “I need help and support, so I tried to go to a psychologist. When I think of all of the things I get a headache. I have the capacity to calm. My wife releases her anger on our children and she needs support”.

All families reported they wanted mental health and parenting support and felt a lack of safety. One woman reported that “Children and women are afraid of going to the toilet at night, it is dangerous here.”

I am 29 and my wife is 23. We have 2 children and a newborn baby. We are from Syria. We had family support in Syria. Here we are alone and we need support. We do not know what to do with our children all day. They get bored and tired and we get tired as well. The father: I try to talk calmly with my children and to support them and play. Take them for a walk. The wife: I do not have patience for the children. I get upset and I yell at them when they do not listen to me. The conditions here cannot keep you calm. We get tired and we do not know how to support our children alone.

6.3 US resettlement findings

Unsurprisingly, the theme of infrastructure in resettlement pertains less to the existence of resources and services and more to the ability to navigate systems and access resources. Overcrowding Is another infrastructure issue as often large families are resettled in small apartments.

The theme of cultural differences appeared frequently, provoking and/or interacting with mental health stressors. Parents and children face language barriers that impact their occupational and educational opportunities and experiences. Families’ religious beliefs and values differ from those of these new societal and educational contexts. Children face bullying in schools and must navigate the mismatch between their home country’s values and beliefs and the new cultural norms of schools. As one father stated, “The children begin to learn new ideas from being part of the community around them. We try and make meaning of what they are learning with our own ideas of how to be parents and what children should or should not do. It is so hard, as what they learn is not always what we believe is good.”

One parent from Myanmar shared, “Our kids are learning things from kids born in the US and are not showing respect to us. This is important in our culture. They begin acting like American kids and calling people by their name rather than their title. They say they cannot share their food, when we always share our food together. They start doing things like other kids and rejecting us. Our language is being lost”. An Arab Muslim parent commented,

We live dual lives: one filled with tradition and culture at home — watching Mom make fresh bread over hot stones and learning our country of origin’s national anthem along with other daily and cultural routines. The other life is filled with constraint: tries to blend in, make and maintain friends at a school, and try to find a job which pays a livable wage. In addition, language differences lead to systemic barriers everywhere we go. We know that speaking many languages is really a talent, however, the systems of education, health, and employment look at it as a deficit and many times correlate our English language ability to our intelligence. We are also grouped together with other ethnicities as people try to make sense of who we are and why we are here. Some people take pity on us due to the situation we come from. This is not helpful either. There are little ways we can culturally bridge our lives and people who live in Colorado typically want us to be like them.

These quotes exemplify a common conflict for refugee and immigrant parents raising children in a new country. Refugee and immigrant families show resilience and adaptability as they bridge two cultures and languages while often facing racial and/or religious discrimination. Balancing traditional and new ways of being in healthy ways requires tremendous navigational capital [63].

That U.S. culture values independence over interdependence impacts families. As one parent stated, “When children learn to take care of themselves, that is good. But when it undermines the parents’ authority it is not good. We are not used to having a family separated. We lived close together. Now when children are grown, they think about where to move, move away. How will our language and culture be remembered? In our culture, decisions are made based on what will happen to everyone, not just one person. We believe we take care of children and when we get old, they take care of us. That is not what happens here in the US”. An Afghani parent stated, “Many times children talk back to their parents, that would not happen back home”.

Many parents reflected upon differences in how children are disciplined and supported in their learning. As with the other two contexts, parents lament not being able to control their children and the lack of respect and honor toward elders. Many have previously used corporal punishment to teach children right and wrong yet in the US that is viewed as wrong and ineffective. Families shared that they see advantages and disadvantages of raising children in a new culture. One example includes the shift in gender roles. Roles within the family change as women go out to work for the first time while men assume tasks such as chores in the home, child rearing and greater involvement in children’s education. While the expanded options for women could be seen as a beneficial change, one challenge is the negative impact it can have on men’s identity. This shift results in men feeling alienated and depressed as these shifts cause them to question their self-worth. About 60% of the women reported their husbands resent their employment. “My husband cannot find a good paying job, so I bring the money home into the family. He is depressed and cannot get out of it, so he drinks. He is always drunk and abusive. But if I leave him, I think he will not make it.” Women working outside of the home face time constraints in fulfilling their traditional roles of caring for the home and child rearing expectations.

Another cultural difference is the accelerated pace of life in the U.S. which alters priorities of how families spend their time. “When we come here – we have so much to do and no time. We do not get to sit with our families and talk and tell stories. Our values are being lost as our stories are lost. We lose ourselves when we cannot take care of our family as we want. My children have to help with the cooking, sons and daughters, but back home sons do not cook.”

Parents also reported concerns that their children are moving away from traditional religious beliefs. Many children try to keep their religious identity private due to discrimination. Palestinian refugees reported the negative impacts that discrimination had on their mental health [64]. Discrimination is not only religious as refugees and asylees systemically face inequities in housing, education, and health care. Parents reported that the laws and rules are not clear. One parent reported fear of taking their child who has special needs to the doctors, as they thought the doctor would report them for child abuse. Several families reported not seeking mental health services for fear of being accused of child abuse and losing custody of their children.

In schools, parents report that language is associated with intelligence. Parents feel ignored or treated in an ‘unfriendly’ manner. One mother reported, “The teacher calls me almost every day to say my 4 year-old is hitting others in her preschool/kindergarten class. Last year in her preschool she was loved, cared for, and she was happy and played with all the children. They spoke Arabic in her other preschool. Now the teachers only speak English, and they think she is a bad girl. I do not know what to do.” The teacher also stated that she did not have the time nor the knowledge to address the needs of the girl and suggested the girl change schools. Schools can be spaces where racial, ethnic, religious, gender, socio-economic and language discrimination and xenophobia intersect. School personnel who hold these biases tend to view refugees’ parenting through a deficit lens.

Additionally, the sense of belonging and identity impact resettlement. As one Arab Muslim father shared, “My family and I often feel like outsiders growing up in the US. We struggle to find balance between our Arab Muslim, identity and our US American identities. Some of our children still struggle even thought they were born and raised here. They should not have to struggle with their identity in school but unfortunately, they do. It is very sad as a parent to watch your child try to be something someone else wants them to be…When we find other families from our home country, we tend to stay together. At least there is an understanding of what we are going through, as we try to make Colorado our new home. Now we live in a community that is very limited in access, resources, services, and our children are many times blamed for mistakes or inappropriate behavior at school. Our families and children continue to live under stress, this makes parenting so difficult as we do not always have patience with our children when we cannot afford to pay our rent or we lost our jobs due to COVID. Many of us are the first to go when it comes to being laid off at work. Then the children feel bad about themselves. This is not what we want. We want to be proud of our culture, our history and we want to make our home good in the US. We live between two worlds, and it is very hard”.

Finally, several refugees discussed the significant trauma women and children experienced due to assault in transit, and in their country of asylum. Even in refugee camps, they are sometimes forced to provide sexual favors just to obtain the aid to which they are entitled.


7. Discussion

In all three contexts, individuals face the chronic stress that comes with great daily uncertainty. Lack of resources and capacity to earn a living were challenges in all three contexts. One difference is that in Palestine, there is a constant imminent threat of violence, mostly from the Israeli armed forces. This leads to extremely high stress levels and challenges to parenting.

Similar in all contexts are parents’ desire to make the best choices for their children and their families along with seeing the importance of education. Parents want their children to learn and have greater opportunities in the future. Resettled individuals face unique challenges, yet often have more choices about how to lead their lives than those in the camps. For individuals in the camps in Greece, they are in a state of perpetual limbo, not knowing their prospects for relocation. This poses unique challenges to parenting as it is extremely difficult to sustain a future orientation/vision. In Palestine, the camps have been established for such a long time, that it can be difficult to have much hope for their circumstances to change. Greece and Palestine respondents are still living in camps whereas the U.S context is one of final resettlement.

In the US, parents shared stories of how they had to contend with the hegemony of what best parenting is. The refugees resettled in the US shared feelings about being seen as deficient and having to hide their parenting values. Societal hidden agendas wield power in determining what is “best” for their children and felt pressure to assimilate to US culture. In all the field sites, reports that children did not obey their parents as the parents obeyed their parents were reported. However, in the US, children felt pressure to be accepted by school and society. Parents reported their children came home with ideas contradictory to their home culture (regarding things such as tattoos, piercings, talking about reproductive health and displays of intimate relationships in public).

A common theme in the Greece and Palestine camps is boredom and lack of purposeful play or work. Children do not have spaces to play and run and be children and camps lack infrastructure to provide enriching childhood experiences. Families resettled in the US sometimes, but not always had more opportunity to find purposeful work. Unemployment and underemployment were common themes in all three sites. The camps however, pose a greater challenge to establishing and maintaining the predictable routines that can be a protective factor in child development. In contrast, resettled individuals can establish routines, but feel the fast pace of U.S. life does not leave time for more traditional familial activities.

In Greece and the U.S. individuals carry a greater sense of guilt as they have left loved ones behind. Additionally, many individuals in the Greece camps expressed a sense of self-doubt and guilt, wondering if they had made the right choice for their family. As their lives are in limbo, it becomes impossible to determine whether the sacrifices they made were worth it. A unique challenge parents in Greek camps discussed is the tension with host countries and local resentment of resource allocation. In the US, refugees feel social isolation and National reports suggest that 50% of the people in the US are resentful and empathetic at the same time [65]. In all three cases, the feelings of social isolation, the need for mental health, parenting support, and purposeful work were reported as strong patterns.

While ample literature documenting refugee experiences exists, work explicitly focusing on parenting in refugee contexts is scarce. Our work is an initial contribution to the fields of Early Childhood Education and Parenting. By understanding the nuances of different refugee experiences, we can develop evidence-based policies and procedures to foster resilience in future generations.


8. Resilience and recommendations

8.1 Understanding and removing barriers

Marope and Kaga [66] assert that disadvantaged families generally require multi sectoral support to cope with sudden changes in their circumstances. Such support is made possible through the collaboration of various agencies addressing inequities which cause diverse vulnerated situations related to housing, health, welfare, family support, employment, and education. Key supports include: overcoming language and communication barriers, mental health, access to education, purposeful work, access to professional development, and learning English. In the US, a main recommendation is providing pathways to education and career advancement that is not contingent on immediate mastery of English. For example, bridging opportunities in the U.S where access to higher education is scaffolded to include the use of the parents’ home language have shown to be extremely beneficial. To make a more significant impact, agencies must provide more opportunities and pathways for purposeful work.

“Having the opportunity from the Pamoja program has given me the chance to make friends with other refugees from the Arab world. Also to enter education where I can learn in my own language. I feel like no one understands me and thinks I do not know anything because I do not speak English well. But now I am learning how to take care of children as a teacher and learning English. I can now work in a job that my husband thinks is okay and can bring some money home to pay our bills.” (Mother resettled in the U.S.) Ideally refugees’ short-term and long-term outcomes are achieved in solidarity, free from discrimination, and with support of language access and justice.

8.2 Mental health support

Healing-focused interventions help children and parents develop the ability to express and regulate their emotions, improve self-control and self-esteem, recover and build resilience so that they are ready to learn. Building parent and caregiver capacity to assist children appropriately during the early stages of crisis response and emotional recovery is essential. Refugee families often need support to implement positive parenting practices because they are also managing their own crisis responses. Building capacity within the community, social networking, and positive interactions aids healing. Psychosocial intervention programs for young children and their families are vital. Programs that offer storytelling, singing, jumping rope, role-play activities, activities in nature such as gardening and hiking, team sports, music, and the arts, writing and drawing exercises have been shown to reduce psychological distress associated with exposure to conflict-related violence in Sierra Leone for children aged 8 to 18 and their families [67]. Studies in Eritrea and Sierra Leone revealed that children’s psychosocial well-being was improved by well-designed educational interventions for the children and for the adults [67]. One author saw how community-led psychosocial services empower the community through capacity building.

Classes in camps that provide purposeful active learning and engagement for both the children and the parents are beneficial. For example, holding classes outdoors where young children and parents can work and learn together in activities such as weaving, gardening, and storytelling, connect families and strengthen the connections between parents and children. Parents and caregivers benefit from learning about positive child interaction, ‘shared and sustained thinking’ [68], ‘serve and return’ [69], and ‘sensitive responsiveness’ [70]. These strategies nurture self-worth and wellbeing and promote successful learning and socialization. Parents and caregivers affected by emergencies and conflicts, can recover and thrive when supported in offering routine, structure, a sense of normality and a safe space to express feelings. We must acknowledge and value how parents/caregivers are children’s first educators and constitute a major influence on the family and child’s development.

Britto and Engle, [71] refer to five, interdependent domains of parenting: caregiving (health, hygiene and nutrition-related practice), stimulation (interactions, learning activities, modeling), support and responsiveness (trust, attachment, sense of security), structure (discipline, supervision, protection from harm) and socialization. Importantly, research shows that the quality of parenting and home environment is predictive of later social emotional health, academic achievement, and overall life success. Informal education, adult literacy, primary healthcare, and wellbeing structures are key. Welcoming, culturally sensitive programs that value parents/caregivers are essential to build positive family relationships. In the authors’ experience, these are the kinds of services are the least likely to be funded/prioritized despite their immense potential for impact.

8.3 Adequate resources

Parents and caregivers impacted by war, conflict, and disaster require support systems specifically targeting parenting and caregiving as a public good. This requires public investment, commitment, and leadership. Appropriate policy and program designs informed by refugee parents/caregivers voices are crucial to ensure their unique needs are addressed. Consistent, predictable, quality education can alleviate the psychosocial impact of conflict and disasters, but emergency situations undermine the quality of educational services available to refugees. Shortages of materials, resources, and personnel limit families’ access to quality education. In most conflicts, education infrastructure is typically a target for destruction because of the stability and support it provides. Pre-schools and schools are often destroyed or closed due to hazardous conditions, depriving families and children of the opportunity to learn and socialize in a safe place with a sense of routine [1, 25]. “The programs offered in the camp are not enough. They help but we need more. My children and I are bored. The teachers who give classes here do not teach like they do at home, but at least there is somewhere my children go. I also learn ways to help myself and how to take care of my own stress. This means I can be a better parent.” (Mother in camp in Greece)

Individuals working in the camps described the extensive efforts of all stakeholders (charities, athletic clubs, social and cultural centers, public figures) to eradicate negative phenomena, and apply reforms. While these stakeholders are typically under-resourced, one aid worker stated, “We couldn’t see the impact yet, but we hope the next generations will. We believe that psychological support for all population segments should always be on the top of the list for any support provided to refugees. We must not underestimate this type of support and its role in supporting our efforts to combat negative phenomena in the camp, and try to overcome the bad demographic, socio-economic reality inside the camp”.

Our final recommendation shifts the focus away from the refugees and toward those working alongside refugee population. Teachers must be trained to be culturally responsive and implement culturally sustaining pedagogy [72, 73, 74]. Culturally-responsive programs that enact a culturally humble approach can support resilience, cultivate bi-multicultural, bi-multilingual communities and reduce the negative impacts of discrimination and invisibility. Service providers, (health, education, social services etc.) must approach their work with genuine curiosity, humility, and reciprocity if they wish to support healthy family structures where parents impacted by violence, war, and conflict can heal and thrive. As one teacher in Greece stated, “I really like being a teacher in the camp, but the parents want me to teach like they were taught. This makes it hard for me. I need to learn more, I need more support of how to teach, I want to be able to go to school so when I leave the camp, I can teach somewhere else.” In resettlement contexts, there is a great need to provide professional development to educators to understand diverse cultures and the lived experiences of immigrants. There is also a tremendous need for highly qualified providers and educators from within the refugee communities as well as from host communities. Additionally, these professionals must receive adequate, ongoing support to work in these unpredictable contexts. It is imperative that stakeholders supporting refugees in camps and in resettlement contexts adopt a mindset of cultural humility in which we marvel at the resilience and commitment these parents have to the betterment of their families’ lives. Host communities must embrace newcomers with the lens of respect and admiration for all they have experienced. Cultural humility entails internalizing the belief that often host communities have much more to learn than to teach newcomers.


9. Study limitations

The authors recognize the limitations of purposive sampling and interviews as they are susceptible to interviewer judgment errors, low levels of reliability and limited generalizability of findings. The interviews are subject to bias as they are subjective in nature and do not provide an exhaustive view of the families’ experiences. Another limit of using semi-structured interviews, is they are time consuming and thus the sample size is smaller but do allow for more in-depth sharing/understanding of lived experiences which can provide a strong baseline for further study.


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Written By

Alia Assali, Manar Younis, Nicole Sager, Marios Dakis and Deborah Young

Submitted: 22 September 2021 Reviewed: 21 February 2022 Published: 02 April 2022