Building Resilience: A Mental Health Perspective of Connecting Families

Story by Nadia Kalinchuk, National Headquarters, Outreach Coordinator and Caseworker for the Americas

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Whether I am interacting with a volunteer in Southern Arizona, or a service partner who is working to help clients rebuild their lives in the aftermath of a traumatic departure from their home country and, in the process, welcoming them to a new country, I continue to be profoundly moved by the work of reconnecting families.  While not all aspects of this work include the warm embrace of a family reunited, or the long awaited message making its way into the hands of an anxious and relieved loved one, I believe that the one human commonality that this work exposes is our need to connect and the resilience that binds us. 

In my previous work, I had worked with survivors of trauma. In the internship year of my social work program, I co-facilitated a trauma group for Somali refugees.  Before and after that, I worked with survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.  From those experiences, I learned that trauma can be a very isolating experience.  The textbooks, clinical classes, and experience taught me that once someone survived a traumatic experience, typical responses included fear, feelings of detachment, hyper-vigilance, withdrawal, shame, and worry, to name but a few.  Although I entered these dark spaces with survivors, as I listened to the story of the worst, and often most unimaginable day of anyone’s life, I also had a different perspective.  I was in a unique and a privileged position to see human resilience at work.  I witnessed the attempts to break through the laundry list of symptoms the traumatic event had left them with, to come to a place of connection, a place where they could share their story.  

My work today with the American Red Cross is very similar.  I still bear witness to someone seeking solace after a traumatic experience, or coming to us during an anxious time in their lives, one in which they are separated from their loved ones.  Their goal is simple, yet layered with context and challenges. Whether they come to us after an international disaster, after having been resettled in the United States, or perhaps after having migrated here, their goal is to be connected to their family, receive solace, and/or understand more fully what is going on and how their loved ones are doing. 

Our work in reconnecting families is not defined as mental health, but it would be impossible to do this work effectively without this lens of understanding.  Someone who comes to the American Red Cross for services, whether after a disaster or for purposes of international separation from loved ones, has more than likely faced a traumatic event, one that they too define and emotionally interpret as trauma.

In the case of international separation from family, the emotional and physical toll of this traumatic departure from home and family can be devastating, further challenged by the length of separation from critical support systems. Researchers and clinicians use the term risk factors to identify the multiple layers around an incident which can worsen the response to a trauma.  Some of the risk factors they speak to are poverty, death of someone close, threat to life, separation from family, forced removal from home and great loss of property.  In working with someone separated from family, there can be multiple risk factors that existed prior to the traumatic separation and some that became part of their trauma story.  I think back to my experience in working with Somali refugees and the layered stories that came in pieces and manifested themselves in physical and emotional pain. 

Despite knowing what we know about both the traumatic response and the risk factors people face which may worsen recovery, we also have seen the incredible strength of the person to survive, to connect, to heal.  This desire for human connection can be described as the strength of human resilience.  The American Psychological Association refers to resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. Simply stated, it is our ability to “bounce back,” from difficult experiences.  Support systems, family, and making that critical connection does more than re-establish safety, and feelings of control - it helps us problem-solve, feel accepted and normalizes feelings about the traumatic experience.  In essence, being connected, having our support systems available to us during a tragedy makes us more resilient. 

By providing services like Restoring Family Links the American Red Cross is building a more resilient community.  In developing the strength and capacity to cope of persons separated internationally through making familial connections, my work as an outreach coordinator, volunteer, and caseworker is building a more resilient community, and letting people know they are not alone.  So while our clients come to us with a need to reconnect to their family, our work is not only to respond to this need, but also to respond with empathy and kindness, understanding that they may have experienced unimaginable tragedy and that what you are witnessing is a monumental act of human resilience.  In taking this perspective, I feel that the caseworkers, volunteers, and staff of the American Red Cross have the incredible privilege of building a more resilient community by reconnecting families.