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Neil Panchmatia: Between Worlds and Identities

01 Nov 2017 10:22 PM | Deleted user

Between Worlds and Identities

by Neil Panchmatia

Immigration has been very much in the news recently. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are currently about 67.8 million forcibly displaced people around the world in need of immediate protection and assistance (UNHCR, 2017). Throughout the world, an unprecedented number of people continue to leave their home countries, either by choice (or degrees of choice) or by becoming forcibly displaced. Individuals and families are uprooted by social, political, and economic trauma – and too often, they are not well served by the current US system of mental health care.

Since the early 1990s Oregon has become home to an influx of migration due to economic and political turmoil. Most Oregon refugees initially resettle in the greater Portland metro area; Portland currently ranks eleventh in US cities that resettle international refugees. According to the Oregon DHS, refugees come here from all over the world, prominently from the former USSR (Russia, Ukraine, and Bosnia), South Asia (Bhutan), Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Burma), the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia and Somalia), the Middle East (Iraq, Iran, and Syria), and Latin America (Cuba).

Research on displaced individuals has shown that a group’s proximity (in terms of outward appearance, language and culture) to the dominant culture of its host country largely determines its ease of acceptance and integration (Colic-Peisker 2005). Refugees who appear as “other” to the dominant racial/cultural group in a historically homogenous state such as Oregon often suffer a more negative experience around their resettlement. Displaced peoples from East Africa or the Middle East, for instance, live on the peripheries of society and are often segregated (physically as well as culturally). On the other hand, refugee groups such as Russians and Ukrainians that settle in Oregon can experience proximity in terms of skin color to the

dominant culture, and have therefore enjoyed a relatively easier integration.

The effects of displacement are well-understood: the trauma resulting from the loss of one’s home, loved ones, and community follows individuals and families all the way to one’s new life in a host country (Marlowe 2010). Such trauma often exacerbates the problematic expectations that you’ll adjust to life in the US as quickly as possible. Most support services here are discontinued within nine months. Refugees are expected to become self-sufficient almost immediately upon arrival by a capitalist system that mythologizes bootstrap-pulling at the expense of general well being (Tyson 2017). Other vital needs such as mental health care are ignored. A preponderance of refugees experience PTSD and similar effects of trauma which go undiagnosed and untreated due to the myriad barriers to accessible care. In Portland, a handful of immigrant and refugee support organizations (e.g., Lutheran Community Services) have stepped up to provide counseling services – yet barriers remain.

In working with forcibly displaced individuals, counselors may be tempted to prioritize one aspect of identity over more immediate concerns. While the experience of displacement is central, and the resulting trauma there is an important locus of concern in treatment planning, this limiting focus misses the mark in understanding the individual holistically. It is necessary to explore and include other salient components of these clients’ “hyphenated hybridities” toward creating a successful therapeutic alliance (Asghari-Fard & Hossain 2017).

Research shows that immigrants and refugees maneuvering arrival and adjustment in host cultures do so primarily by constructing and negotiating their identity (Asghari-Fard & Hossain 2017).

The result is a new, hybrid identity that consists of values, labels and roles that are emphasized differently in different settings. A Somali American would likely identify more as “Muslim” over “Somali” in a mosque setting, more as “Somali” within a community cultural organization, and more as “American” while engaging in civic activities such as voting or running for office. All three intersections of American, Muslim, and Somali are otherwise equally important intersections of identity: they are simply prioritized and performed as the situation demands. Adjustment to life in the US is an ongoing process, one without a finite end, and each individual experiences life between the currents of culture uniquely: constructing and negotiating her/ his/their identity independently and collectively with the larger community.

In Portland’s Somali community, for instance, identity intersections begin at the individual level and expand out to the societal level. For example, some intersections a Somali-American can have include: being female, black, African, immigrant, Muslim, queer, and differently abled. Identity is uniquely formed and negotiated by each individual. Identity, furthermore, informs the social roles an individual adopts. These social roles are an indication of which aspects of their identity are important to them and to what degree: a Somali woman, for instance, takes on the role of establishing an informal peer-counseling group within the local community in order to support women experiencing domestic violence (which trauma research shows is exacerbated as a result of the displacement experience). She hosts this group within the mosque, which has taken on the role of confronting domestic violence within the broader Muslim community, and so provides her necessary resources. She then may decide to go to graduate school and study counseling, so that she can continue to give back to her community by providing mental health services. She understands that Somali women prefer to work with other women when seeking mental health care. She also understands that needing and

seeking care carries a deeply embedded stigma within her community, and that individuals are hesitant to seek help. She understands that different sub- groups within her community have very different needs: the elders, youth, men, women, queer individuals, people with disabilities and people from different waves of immigration to Portland. She also understands that while she knows her culture and the experiences of her people best, her audience may be reluctant to see her for services because she is “too close to home” in a collectivistic community where reputations and social perceptions matter. Consequently, she decides to partner up with Lutheran Community Services as a “cultural broker” within the Somali community to start up a culturally responsive counseling program.

Take the pressure off the client to educate the counselor.

Mental health professionals should attempt to explore and understand the intersections of identity (or the hyphenated hybridities) of their clients while engaging in cultural humility. A respectful curiosity should be projected within counseling sessions, which creates a safe and brave space for exploration and expression of different intersections of identity. This space should also be designed to take the pressure off of the client to “educate” the counselor. Counselors should enter a session having done their homework and having some basic background information on the cultural and historical background of their clients (a quick Google search, for instance, can reveal so much about Somalia).

Displaying basic contextual knowledge about a client’s background in session (not cultural assumptions or stereotypes) can be an encouraging experience for clients and can facilitate a deeper exploration of identities.

The goal, within therapy, is to fully empower clients who have experienced the trauma of displacement and are maneuvering the additional stressors of culture shock, marginalization and other barriers to successful adjustment to life in the US. By creating and maintaining a therapeutic alliance and space that intentionally accommodates and celebrates all intersections of identity, mental health professionals will be able to cross cultural divides and provide the critical care and support needed. In today’s socio-political climate that “others” refugees and migrants and further pushes them to the fringes of society, this deliberate therapeutic intervention of culturally responsive care is nothing short of an act of much-needed social justice activism by helping professionals.


Asghari-Fard, M., & Hossain, S. Z. (2017). Identity construction of second- generation Iranians in Australia: influences and
Social Identities, 23(2), 126–145.

Hardwick SW, & Meacham JE. “Placing” the refugee diaspora in Portland, Oregon: Suburban expansion and densification in a re-emerging gateway. In: Singer A, Hardwick S, Brettell C, editors. Twenty-first century gateways: Immigrant incorporation in suburban America. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press; 2008. pp. 225–256.

Colic-Peisker, V. (2005). “At Least You”re the Right Colour’: Identity and Social Inclusion of Bosnian Refugees in Australia. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 31(4), 615–638.

Marlowe, J. M. (2010). Beyond the Discourse of Trauma: Shifting the Focus on Sudanese Refugees. Journal of Refugee Studies, 23(2), 183-198.

Tyson, C. (2017). Towards a new framework for integration in the US, (February), 48-49.

Neil Panchmatia is a graduate student in counseling at PSU. He is from Kenya and wants to work with immigrant and refugee populations, and is also keen on continuing to work with other marginalized groups in Oregon, including racial/ ethnic and gender/sexual minorities as well as individuals with disabilities.

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