By Thilal Halimah, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
I first became interested in researching the resilience of refugee children when I met Abdurahman, a seven-year old Syrian refugee child who moved to Jordan with his family. It was seven years ago when we met in Zarqaa city in Jordan. I was there to visit family as well as seek voluntary work to support refugee children in local schools.
The details of my meeting with Abdurahman are engraved in my memory; his serious facial expressions, the dry and cracked skin on his little hands, and his mature demeanour are unforgettable. His eyes spoke a million words of the suffering he endured when he lived in Deraa in Syria, right opposite the Omari mosque where the Syrian revolution had first commenced in 2011. Soon after, his home had been demolished and his father had been left with life-changing spinal injuries after being tortured by the forces of Assad. My task as a teacher was simple: Abdurahman was refusing to go to school and I had to convince him to return.
The painful memories of his past were on display in his colourful drawings, depicting his neighbourhood as he remembered it from before and now after the war.
In our discussions on how to bridge the gap between the Syria of war and the Syria of peace, Abdurahman talked to me about the role of education. He expressed that the large-scale damage to Syria’s infrastructure can be addressed by educating young Syrians and equipping them with skills to be able to return home in the future and rebuild their own country. He stressed that focusing efforts on humanitarian aid without education only addresses short-term problems and it keeps Syrian refugees in a cycle of more struggle and dependence. He knew that there was a discrepancy between his views on education and his refusal to go back to school, but it was also apparent that he was trying to protect himself from some kind of danger, and seek emotional safety.
As we progressed in our session, I became more and more concerned about the toxic experiences that led him to withdraw from school. I learned that Abdurahman was under passive pressure to support his struggling father in making a decent living for his family and that he was experiencing severe bullying at school for his refugee status. He was also in poverty and subjected to discrimination. I will never forget the moment when he proudly, yet anxiously, set foot in school after a three-week long absence, only to be reprimanded by his head teacher for not wearing his school uniform and threatened with expulsion if he is absent from school again. As a teacher myself, I was speechless.
Abdurahman’s experience, and the experiences of many other similar children I met, confirmed key conclusions from my academic reading. Extraordinary stories that capture themes of resilience often present protagonists who are from humble backgrounds and who survive or make profound achievements after horrific experiences. Consequently, we are usually led to assume that those resilient individuals possess unique strengths and capabilities that helped them to survive and thrive despite the odds. Being resilient is also usually presented as a quality that you either have or you don’t have, and an achievement that solely reflects the personality and willpower of an individual. As such, according to these stereotypical beliefs about resilience, Abdurahman may not necessarily be considered resilient. This is because his refusal to return to school may be seen to be failure to cope with the challenges he is facing.
Indeed, this narrow and cliché-movie-inspired view on resilience only seems to celebrate sensational narratives of resilience, placing limitations on individuals who are facing adversity by influencing their perceptions of their own capabilities and what it means to be resilient. It also takes the blame away from those groups who are responsible for inflicting harm on the vulnerable. The danger of these common beliefs about resilience is that they exclude a dominant factor that makes profound contributions to the resilience of individuals or the lack of it, which is environment. The implication of this is that when we explore ways to nurture resilience among disadvantaged communities including refugees, we may focus only on empowering individuals rather than also identifying areas of improvements in the environment.
Essentially, resilience is not a fixed trait; rather, it is a process and an outcome of complex and dynamic interactions between a person’s unique qualities (i.e. genetic and personality qualities) and their environment. Professor Michael Ungar, who is the director of the ‘Resilience Research Centre’ defines resilience as the ‘capacity of individuals to navigate their ways to resources that sustain well-being’. This definition as well as others highlight both the individual qualities as well as environmental factors (i.e. the availability of ‘resources’ in Ungar’s definition).
Of course, there is great variability in the way people show and experience resilience as well as how they respond to different contexts and levels of stress, and at which points in their lives, which makes resilience extremely complex to research. However, despite this variability, there is widely supported consensus among resilience experts that resilience is influenced by key environmental factors namely social relationships and communities at large.
One of the key reasons for why social relationships and communities play a key role in the resilience of individuals is that they project beliefs about the ‘self’, its character, entitlements, strengths, and vulnerabilities among many other ideas that have the potential to either make the individual bloom in the face of adversity or wither. Self-belief is like the fuel that enables the person to utulise their tools and reach out for support and opportunities and put simply, be resilient. Refugee children are particularly vulnerable of developing negative or limiting self-beliefs if they (and their families) grow up being the target of discrimination and marginalization. As such, the ideas or beliefs that are projected to a refugee community about their own sense of agency are argued to have a mediating relationship with their resilience.
Interestingly, some research on resilience defines positive development for migrant youth in light of five key concepts, all of which cannot truly stand without healthy self-beliefs. They are: (1) competence, (2) confidence, (3) connection (i.e. social relationships), (4) character (i.e. conducting one’s self in accordance with social norms) and (5) caring (i.e. sympathy and empathy with others). These five concepts are seen to be a ‘toolkit’ to help with positive development. Although these tools appears to be ordinary, yet they help to yield an extraordinary outcome, and that is resilience.
Professor Ann Masten, a pioneer in resilience research, refers to resilience as ‘ordinary magic’. That is, to be resilient during or after adversity is extraordinary, but the pathway towards resilience is ordinary. She believes that resilience is not an outcome of unique heroic qualities in a person, but rather, a reflection of some ordinary protective systems functioning around and with that individual. She says that when children overcome difficult situations, it can be due to their special talents or willpower, but in most cases it is simple things like support from competent parents and supportive communities. Ensuring that this support is present and competently applied gives children the opportunity to develop their own resilience, and ultimately gain a sense of dignity from their self-sufficiency.
Syrian refugees are known to have endured overwhelming physical and mental suffering throughout the Syrian conflict which was described by the United Nations as the ‘worst man-made disaster since World War II’ (UNHCR, 2017) with over 13 million Syrian refugees, including 5.3 million children. This conflict is not only known for its horrific and unforgettable memories of genocide, torture, imprisonments, it is also known for its complexity at the political front. All of this will inevitably continue to impact on the resilience of this population for years to come. While volunteering to support Syrian refugee children at the grassroots level is immensely rewarding for me, I believe that real change happens in our communities through rigorous research that works to influence education policy and the wider society.
It is my personal ambition to contribute to the ongoing refugee educational research in Jordan, through the support of the Queen Rania Foundation, much of which focuses on the theme of resilience. Existing research conducted by the Queen Rania Foundation has focused on social cohesion including academic attainment among Syrian refugees in Jordan, which has been successful in highlighting how Syrian children perform academically in comparison to their Jordanian peers among many other findings. My research aims to specifically explore resilience with a keen focus on how personal, social and environmental factors function together.
At a time when refugee children are barraged with messages of vulnerability and powerlessness, my aim is to inspire hope and to identify areas of strength and areas of potential growth. For children like Abdurahman, small changes to their reality and the resources that are made available to them can go a long way in supporting their experiences of resilience. It is indeed a long journey and there is much work to do, but research is the first step for me.
Masten, A. (2001). Ordinary Magic. American Psychological Association,
UNHRC. (2017). Syria worst man-made disaster since World War II – Zeid.
Retrieved September 12, 2018, from
Thilal is a PhD student at the Faculty of Education and a former London secondary teacher. With a PhD fellowship at the Queen Rania Foundation in Jordan, Thilal is exploring the factors that influence the resilience of Syrian and Jordanian children and young adults in Jordan. Find her on Twitter: @Thilal_Halimah