In this section, the qualitative findings will be grouped under key thematic categories. These are (1) political discourses on immigration, thwarted aspirations and psychological distress; (2) unmet expectations, material conditions, changing gender roles and poor mental health and (3) pre-migration social status, loss of homeland and mental illness.
Domestic political discourse about immigration, thwarted aspirations and psychological distress
“First of all we are refugees and being a refugee has its own disadvantage. Secondly we are black people” (lay, male, London).
“I think these two guys have said it all. You know, we are refugees and as my friend said we just do whatever we are told to do and there is nothing we can do about it” (lay, male, London).
“They don’t know that some of these people used to own big houses and cars. So they think you are a refugee who had no previous life” (lay, female, London).
As the above quotations indicate, lay participants from London felt that their new identity as refugees devalued their past lives and ruptured their personal narratives and meanings about their lives. The London participants particularly saw the attitudes of some of public service providers towards refugees as disrespectful, dehumanising and disempowering. The quote: “we just do whatever we are told to do and there is nothing we can do about it” expresses a feeling of resignation and powerlessness.
For these participants, a disparaged refugee identity was despised since this new identity brought with it a social stigma and disadvantages that affect their lives and those of their children:
“My younger brother had an argument with his teacher when he called him to a rubbish bin area and said ‘you are a refugee, aren’t you?’ and then he told him you are like this rubbish bin, you are nothing. I felt bad when he told me about this. And he is only 12
years old” (lay, female, London).
“The child will now believe that he is a refugee and he is like that rubbish bin” (lay, female, London).
Like their London counterparts, the Minneapolis lay group also noted the negative status attached to the refugee identity. Both Minneapolis and London groups made passing references to a perceived link between a devalued refugee identity and psychological distress:
“I knew this guy, he was a normal guy, he was working and he knew what was going on around him. So these illnesses are related to the stressful situations of being refugees” (lay, female, Minneapolis).
“People had different backgrounds before they came here… Of course, they will talk to themselves since they are nothing here” (professional, male, Minneapolis).
Unmet expectations, material conditions, changing gender roles and poor mental health
Professional participants from both study sites put focus on the problems some Somalis face when they arrive in the host environment. They were particularly troubled by the complacent attitudes among the newcomers during their early days in the host nations:
“People come here and they wonder about you, so you don’t have a car, you don’t have a house, what is this, and how many years have you been here? What have you been doing in all those years? Well, I have been working all my life. The mentality when they come here is amazing. Well this is America, clean streets, tall buildings, beautiful America, people think when they are coming here they are coming to heaven only if they knew how the tall buildings were built” (professional, female, Minneapolis).
“Yeah, they would know all about that soon” (professional, male, Minneapolis).
“A young man who was told the wrong things about life in Europe and then comes to London and is expecting to have what he saw in the films. He is expecting to have a nice big house and the same bed and everything he dreamed of, he would not cope when he finds out the real life in London”, (professional, female, Minneapolis).
From the above quotations, the professional groups seem to propose that some Somalis find it difficult to integrate or overcome the initial cultural shocks they have experienced. This is partly because of the marked distance between the high living standards some Somali refugees had expected in the host nations and the actual reality of the difficult life situations in which they often find themselves, and partly because of a loss of social status compared with life in Somalia where they held professional and senior posts. This was compounded by the stigma of being a refugee and having to take on a deeply despairing new refugee identity.
“They have no good life here. They are on low wages, they experience health disparities, they take no vacation, and they go on and on until they drop dead (professional, male, Minneapolis).
The professional participants proposed that it was during this early stage when these refugees were vulnerable to breakdown under stress, partly because of the mismatch between pre-migration life expectations and status and post-migration realities of refugee existence and status. An area of crucial disagreement was the mental health consequences of unmet expectations due to changes in Somali traditional gender roles. Male professional participants stated that by coming to the Western countries, Somali men had lost their social status and that Somali women gained from this loss. This, according to the male professional, has contributed to the men’s mental health instability in the host nations:
“The Somali woman’s role is still there - to look after the children, she is studying, she is doing evening work and her roles have increased. The man had position in society, coming here, he was told you are nobody. I think that rather cracks up men. My position is not there, so that affects them”, (professional, male, London).
“I think that’s also something to do with our country, we just say a man has to have high expectations and a machismo kind of a character. But then their expectations have been dashed, whereas women, they have had low expectations initially and they're just trying to cope with their new lives. And I think that is because men go through a difficult pressure to do better whereas women who do not go through that pressure, they cope well”, (professional, female, London).
Some participants disagreed with this view stating that reverse gender roles is also bad for the psychological wellbeing of some women:
“Women with three or more unaccompanied children, can’t speak good English…She is not mixing with the community, all the time she is cooking, she can’t fill in the forms, and they are sending her more letters. That woman is all the time in need. I think that woman would go mad” (professional, male, London).
“The authority within the family has been stripped. Yes, men feel very powerless because roles have been reversed and a mother who never worked in her life when she starts to go to work here, she has to be the breadwinner in the family. She has to a lot of things to do she never used to do before but that woman is almost as vulnerable as her husband” (professional, female, Minneapolis).
Thus, changing gender roles were amongst the factors that were seen to take away prestige and dignity from Somali men, perhaps undermining their self-perceptions of their masculinity as a positive identity, with dire consequences for their self-esteem and thus mental well-being. Adverse gender roles were also seen to affect women’s mental wellbeing, although there was some disagreement as to whether men or women were more affected by the reverse gender roles in the host nations.
Pre-migration social status, loss of homeland and mental illness
There was also a broad consensus across all groups that the collapse of the Somali state, the loss of ‘homeland’ and the ongoing conflict in Somalia has affected the psychological wellbeing of Somali refugees in the host nations:
“In my view it is the lack of government back home that is causing people to go mad. If Somalia was peaceful we wouldn’t have these problems” (lay, male, Minneapolis).
“The civil war has affected all aspects of Somali life. You can’t say that the war affected only one thing” (female, professional, London).
“That shows that the war messed up our lives” (lay, female, Minneapolis).
Participants were not just discussing the adverse psychological consequences of displacement, nostalgia and disorientation associated with the loss of a place [24
], native country, but they also discussed how the current political and economic affairs taking place in the host nation are damaging to their psychological wellbeing:
“People are experiencing all sorts of new problems that they were not used to dealing with back home. These problems are what causing them too much “Fakar”- [thinking]” (professional, male, Minneapolis).
Lay participants were more likely than the professional participants to attribute some of the psychological problems of Somali refugees to the pressures of sending Hawala money:
“Some people are working around 18
h or 20
h a day and they still get no real benefit from their fat cheques. By the time they paid for everyone else, including relatives back home, nothing is left for them to enjoy” (professional, male, Minneapolis).
“Of course, this would have a lot of effects on people, mentally, physically and emotionally, you name it” (lay female, Minneapolis).
“It is not secret that some people do long shifts. It is not secret that some people would sleep in the factories if they were allowed. They say we would sleep inside and work for a 28
h shift”, (professional, male, Minneapolis).
According to these professional participants, many Somali refugees were under huge pressure to work on a long shift to support their extended family members. While the financial benefits of long working shifts was seen as essential for adequate survival, it was also perceived as a contributing cause of mental illness and social problems such as marriage breakdowns.
The above lay narratives all point to a collective degree of uncertainty and psychological distress caused by the lack of effective government and civil unrest in Somalia. This was a common theme across all groups. The majority of the lay and professional participants from both cities felt that Somalis had lost everything they had before the civil war including their ‘homeland’ and that this is causing psychological mal-adaptation among some Somali refugees.
In short, professional and lay Somalis from Minneapolis and London linked various psychological problems with a host of perceived pre and post-migrations risk factors. These were interconnected and included the loss of ‘homeland’, stigmatised refugee identity, unmet expectations and difficulties in the process of settlement in the host nations. Specifically, poor socioeconomic conditions and loss of former social and professional status, changes in gender roles, challenges to masculinity and thwarted aspirations, were all seen as related to psychological distress.
The similar narratives of the London and Minneapolis participants were not surprising. Both groups share a history of displacement and difficult life experiences. Discussions of clan politics (Fadhi ku dirir) and constant worries about the violent situation in Somalia are commonly held at Somali malls, cafés, restaurants, shops and calling centres in London and Minneapolis. The loss of a beloved ‘homeland’, the pressure to send remittance money (Hawala) and Somali’s current political turmoil were all narrated as a major source of psychological distress.