Jean de Dieu Basabose and Rich Janzen
This reflection on building community is one in a series of blogs written by the Centre for Community Based Research (CCBR). CCBR’s mission is to build responsive and supportive communities, especially for people with limited access to power and opportunity.
Akiel (not his real name) is a refugee claimant from Africa. He arrived alone in Canada in 2018. For safety concerns, his family recently moved from their home country to a neighbouring country in Africa. There is uncertainty about their future together as they impatiently await reunification. There is also vulnerability in how precarious their life has become.
The global pandemic has only made matters more difficult. Akiel is keenly aware of the additional emotional burden COVID-19 has placed on himself and his family. Like many around the world, Akiel remains in lockdown in Canada as does his family in Africa. A family man, he finds himself alone in a small basement apartment. He says it feels like “solitary confinement”.
And yet family life continues. Without proximity, there remains a strong connection between Akiel and his wife and children across the ocean. Despite distance, a special closeness has been cultivated. In fact, Akiel says that the bonds of family ties have been strengthened.
Akiel’s story was shared at a recent webinar hosted by the Canadian Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holders Association. The webinar was held in partnership with the Centre for Community Based Research and focused on the topic of "building community at a distance”. Participants discussed this question: During our time of physical distancing, what can refugee newcomers teach us about building resilient families and communities here in Canada?
The psychologist Froma Walsh (2016) suggests that family resilience is not just about weathering a storm. Resilience is about turning disruptive life challenges into a catalyst for family growth. To achieve this, she speaks about three broad processes that support family resilience: communication, organization, and belief. We like to think about these three processes as the individual threads of resilience. Together, they enable resilience in the face of adversity, leaving a family strengthened and more resourceful.
Akiel’s story (shared here with permission) is a good illustration.
Maintaining open communication where opinions and emotions are expressed freely in the spirit of collaborative problem-solving is key for families to approach adversity with empathy and resourcefulness. Akiel communicates with his family on a daily basis. They make sure that parents and children alike have a clear understanding of the family’s evolving situation. They take advantage of numerous technological options: Zoom, Facebook Messenger, Skype, Google Meet or WhatsApp. Usually they speak together as a whole family, although sometimes Akiel has side conversations to talk through unique challenges or individual issues. The daily check-ins help family members to express their concerns, feelings and needs. They also support each other to cope with the many challenges created by long-term separation.
How a family is structured and connected also matters. Resilient families are both flexible and stable - being open to change yet remaining nurturing and dependable. To effectively deal with crises, families mobilize their resources, buffer stress, and reorganize to fit changing conditions. Akiel notes that reorganizing the family structure during their time of separation (particularly following the pandemic outbreak) has been the most challenging aspect for him. Playing the role of “father at a distance” is very difficult. Akiel’s oldest is a teenager. It has been a challenging time for him - remaining at home during the lockdown and living in a foreign country under multiple pressures and security concerns. Akiel is saddened by the fact that he cannot provide his usual family leadership in nurturing, guiding and protecting his family. Yet Akiel recognizes that his wife has adapted to play a central role in keeping intra-family relationships healthy. She does her best to maintain family routines and helps to keep the children busy with their chores.
Shared beliefs are what help family members find meaning in adversity and cultivate hope and a positive outlook. Beliefs can be tied to faith, giving individuals a bigger purpose and the ability to see a crisis as a transformative opportunity for growth. Members of Akiel’s family read the Bible, sing, and pray on a daily basis. On weekends, the family gathers and prays together over Zoom. “Trusting in Almighty God keeps alive our hope for a better future”, says Akiel. Fostering belief helps them to be confident in knowing that their future is in God’s hands.
Akiel’s story shows us what these three threads of resilience might look like. However by themselves, they are not enough. To be useful, threads need to be knit together. Here, Akiel draws on the African concept of Ubuntu to explain how he was able to weave these threads of resilience into his family life. Ubuntu is a cultural value that emphasizes interconnectedness and mutual support. “I am, because you are” - that one can only grow and progress through the growth and progress of others. Barack Obama explained it this way in his 2013 address at Nelson Mandela’s Memorial Service:
There is a word in South Africa -- Ubuntu -- a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.
Akiel was pleasantly surprised to find expressions of this “invisible binding” of Ubuntu in Canada. He appreciates the people who have welcomed him and built community with him, practically showing love, kindness, and compassion during this painful transition. While in lockdown these supporters have regularly called him, emailed him, or connected via other means to check-in to see what he needs. Recently, Akiel introduced his family to some of his Canadian friends via Zoom. Linking his family to these supporters, who are eager to welcome them to Canada, contributed to sustaining hope among his family. These types of gestures have made Akiel experience Ubuntu in action. A healthy community makes sure that no one is left behind.
What can refugee newcomers teach us about building resilient families and communities here in Canada? Akiel’s story demonstrates the importance of nurturing communication, organization, and belief in times of crisis. It also stresses the importance of Ubuntu; that resilient families need healthy communities. The presence of Ubuntu helped Akiel prevent re-traumatization as he adjusted to life in Canada, and provided new strength for him to be a father and husband at a distance. In the process, he has been able to weave together the invisible threads of family resilience.
Jean de Dieu Basabose is a Researcher and Rich Janzen is Co-Executive Director at the Centre for Community Based Research, a non-profit organization on the University of Waterloo campus. email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org