Surviving extreme adversity and loss

The role of family and community in persevering through conflict

Lebanese research assistants on a tour of the neighbourhood in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, led by two Syrian children who have been displaced. The “neighborhood walk” methodology helps Akesson and her research team learn about the community within which families are living, and it also gives young children a much needed voice in the research process.

Credit: Bree Akesson

Millions of people around the world face extreme adversity due to war, poverty or the impacts of climate change, such as floods and droughts. This adversity creates environments of fear and a scarcity of resources, displacing people from their homes and affecting their well-being. Yet amid the pain and loss, people persevere. They marry, raise children, and celebrate special occasions with family and friends.

Bree Akesson, Canada Research Chair in Global Adversity and Well-Being and associate professor in the Faculty of Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University, is exploring how people find and access the social systems and supports they need to keep living their lives through conflict and displacement.

Resilience among ruins and rubble

Akesson has studied how war affects families for 20 years. When conducting research in Chechnya, amid the rubble of a bombed-out city square and with Russian helicopters circling overhead, she watched people dancing to the sounds of accordions as if nothing had happened. The scene led her to realize that despite their circumstances, people still find moments of joy.

“I was fascinated that they could persevere and get on with their everyday lives in parallel with war,” she says. “So I made that my niche: How does life continue? How do people deal with loss, despite these horrible things that are happening?”

Since then, Akesson has approached her work not just through the eyes of the individual affected by adversity, but through the supportive influences of their families and communities.

Layers of loss

Among the many projects Akesson is working on as Canada Research Chair is a study of how Syrian refugees in Lebanon experience pregnancy loss such as stillbirths or miscarriages. While most research considers this a uniquely female issue, Akesson’s first-of-its-kind study, supported by a SSHRC Insight Development Grant, explores the destabilizing effect such loss has on mothers and fathers—and how it intertwines with the loss of home and country faced by people displaced by conflict.

Credit: Bree Akesson

What distinguishes Akesson’s work is that families were interviewed together and as individuals to better understand how both parents experience loss. (A research coordinator in Lebanon conducted the interviews on her behalf after COVID-19 limited international travel.) She says it was important to capture men’s voices on this topic, as they are typically ignored in the academic literature.

Early findings show some Syrian women face intense pressure to produce children and suffer intense blame when they experience pregnancy loss—but there is a complete lack of formal support to help them get through it.

“No programs exist, it’s just silence,” she says. “But there’s a glimmer of light. We’ve found that informal supports do exist, such as communities of women who support one another. So how do we promote these informal supports?”

Closer to home, Akesson is studying the resettlement experience of refugees in Ontario. Young people in refugee families from a wide range of war-affected countries in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia will report on their everyday experiences using collaborative family interviews and GPS mapping. She is also conducting research on domicide (the intentional destruction of homes during conflict), looking at its impact on peoples’ sense of security, self and well-being.

Influencing organizations on the ground

Although Canada is recognized as a leader in international human rights and resettlement, this doesn’t mean the situation can’t be improved—both here and abroad. Akesson hopes her research will have an impact on Canada’s resettlement policy but, more broadly, she would like it to influence the organizations that work directly with families experiencing loss and displacement by improving access to more of the supports people need to be resilient.

“My colleagues in conflict zones tell me, ‘This is our life. What else can we do?’ But I’m consistently amazed and impressed by the perseverance of the people I work with,” she says. “It makes me realize how lucky I am.”

Want to learn more?

Read about Akesson’s current Canada Research Chair projects. Her previous SSHRC-funded research, Out of Place, tells the stories of families who fled the conflict in Syria and was the focus of her presentation as Roach Lecturer at Arizona State University.

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