Abstract

This research set out to investigate displaced women’s resilience and growth relationally, including relationships between displaced women and their children and how growth might extend to those working with displaced women. A unique relational, narrative and ethnographic approach demonstrated how processes of ‘reciprocal growth’ were constructed. Moving beyond previous concepts such as vicarious post-traumatic growth and ‘reciprocal resilience’, the unique finding of the research was women’s and volunteers’ co-construction of resilience and growth interpersonally and intersubjectively. ‘Othering’ narratives were dismantled through shared story and reciprocal human relationships, which allowed for a growthful connection between intra-psychic meaning making and wider community: linking what’s ‘within’ (I) to what’s ‘between’ (we). Consciously paying attention to reciprocal growth processes has empowering connotations for displaced women, those in relationship with them and society itself.

Introduction

This article describes research undertaken as part of the first author’s doctorate in clinical psychology. It was co-constructed in relationship with a third sector organisation which works with displaced people in the UK.

Underpinned by a determination to avoid perpetuating dominant deficit-focused, individualised narratives of displaced women as ‘traumatised victims’, I explored women’s stories of resilience and growth in relationships. I spent two years building relationships with a group of displaced women through a women’s group, working with Playback Theatre actors who facilitated the group. Playback Theatre is a form of community theatre, in which stories told in the group are enacted (played back) through improvisation (Dennis, 2008).

The research was comprised of three strands. The first explored how displaced women constructed stories of resilience and growth in the mothering role. The second looked at how the Playback Theatre actors working with the women told stories of their resilience and growth through this work. Finally, I engaged in reflexive autoethnography, exploring my own development of resilience and growth through relationships with the women. This article is focused on analysis of the first two parts and the autoethnographic reflections will be explored elsewhere.

The research used an ethnographic and narrative approach underpinned by strong relationships forged over a significant length of time. This long-term, relational approach facilitated a deep and novel exploration of the women’s strength and growth over time. The research moves beyond previous concepts such as resilience and post-traumatic growth arguing instead for use of the term ‘reciprocal growth’ to fully capture the movement, depth and relational nature of the development described in these stories and experiences.

Background

Women, forced displacement and meaning making: ‘the traumatised victim’

Forced displacement describes a context in which people must leave their homes because of persecution, conflict or human rights violations (UNHCR, 2020). In a gendered society, displaced women have different experiences from displaced men (Lenette et al, 2013). This difference is manifest before, during and after displacement, including sexual and gender-based violence, gendered persecution and discrimination, and adapting to gendered norms in a new culture (Sherwood and Liebling-Kalifani, 2012; European Parliament, 2016). In addition, how women’s experiences are understood and responded to by society is also gendered (Gluck and Patai, 1991).

This research comes from a feminist, social constructionist perspective, viewing women’s wellbeing as a product of ‘meaning making’ within a sociopolitical context (Ungar, 2004). Meaning making refers to stories constructed to understand our experiences. Ways of making meaning and stories told are shaped according to where the power is held in society, making them more likely to disempower subordinated groups, including women and those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds (Foucault, 1980). Critically, how we make meaning of our experiences relates to the dominant, gendered, racialised narratives available in the wider context (Gluck and Patai, 1991).

Within Western psychology, the experience of displaced women has typically been understood within an individualist, trauma-focused narrative (Papadopoulos, 2002). This ‘traumatised victim’ story has become so dominant that it is often the only story (Papadopoulos, 2007). It is undeniable that displaced women suffer; however, making meaning of their world only through a ‘traumatised’ lens gives rise to a problem-focused story. When ‘dominant stories’ are ‘problem saturated’ distress and difficulty are compounded (White and Epston, 1990). A problem-saturated narrative about displaced women risks disqualifying resilience and growth alongside the suffering they also endure. How we make meaning of our experiences is crucial. When the ‘traumatised victim’ story is internalised – becoming the story women tell themselves – this compounds distress, acting as a barrier to growth and empowerment (Tedeschi and Calhoun, 2004; Hutchinson and Dorsett, 2012; Uy and Okubo, 2018). This story also sets up an ‘us and them’ polarity, positioning refugee women as passive recipients of ‘help’ offered by those who are working with them (the ‘helpers’) (Yüksel, 2020).

Moving beyond ‘the traumatised victim’ story: resilience and growth

Resilience can be described as positive adaptation in the face of adversity (Bonanno, 2004). Beyond resilience, post-traumatic growth describes how trauma and adversity can be a catalyst for psychological growth and development, including positive changes in self-perception, relationships and one’s philosophy of life (Tedeschi and Calhoun, 2004). Despite the positive focus, if ‘resilience and growth’ are applied as the single story in an individualised, decontextualised way, it could be as unhelpful as a single story of trauma, perpetuating a dichotomy in which displaced women are either resilient or traumatised, and in which some are deserving and others are not (Lenette et al, 2013). Pulvirenti and Mason (2011) call for displaced women to be seen as more than ‘victims’ and more than ‘survivors’, regarding growth and resilience as continually unfolding processes through the navigation of adversity. In a similar move away from individualised conceptualisations, Ungar (2012) draws attention to the interactive layers of the individual, family, community and society in which resilience unfolds. In this research, resilience and growth are recognised not as products or outcomes but as processes embedded within a woman’s sociocultural and relational contexts and co-occurring with suffering.

Yüksel (2020) reviewed the literature relevant to the resilience of forcibly displaced women, confirming a construction of resilience as a dynamic, relational process. This review highlighted the interplay between individual displaced women’s resilience and the wider social ecologies of which they are a part. Support from family, peers, community and wider society was integral. Women were not passive recipients of outside support. Rather their active participatory relationship in using this support to navigate daily challenges was vital to resilience. Through active participation, communities of agency and empowerment in which resilience was co-created collectively could be generated. Yüksel (2020) highlights that conceptualising resilience as a form of agency is fundamental in moving away from dominant stories of displaced women as ‘helpless victims’. The review identifies that women’s resilience from a gendered perspective remains an understudied area, particularly in the linking of the individual to the relational level in resettlement contexts.

Beyond resilience, little attention has been paid to women’s capacity for growth following displacement. Chan et al (2016) bring together research within and outside the field of forced displacement to make recommendations for future research. The authors highlight the importance of family, community, social support, religion and collective identity in growth after displacement. However, these social and relational components of post-traumatic growth in displaced populations are yet to be the focus of any study. Additionally, aside from surface-level comments on demographic variables in post-traumatic growth related to gender, no studies have looked specifically at displaced women’s growth.

Despite the recognition in the literature that relationships are vital, these have typically been positioned as the ‘backdrop’ to individual resilience and growth, rather than a relational process in itself (Berger and Weiss, 2009). There is a dearth of literature exploring women’s resilience and growth relationally. Perhaps one of the most important relational contexts for many displaced women is the relationship with their children. Women are typically the primary caregivers in displaced families and have often become sole parents as a result of displacement (Levi, 2014), with mothering and maternal roles often being a source of pride and meaning for displaced women (Yüksel, 2020). Though there is a growing literature about mothering in forced displacement contexts, in common with the ‘traumatised victim’ story, much of this research has been deficit-focused. A review of the literature found that hardship and loss coexisted with resilience for those parenting through displacement (Merry et al, 2017); nevertheless, only one study focused on the resilience narratives related to mothering (Merry et al, 2017). In their ethnography of displaced mothers, Lenette et al (2013) highlighted women’s resilience as a dynamic process constructed through the navigation of day-to-day struggles. No studies have looked beyond resilience to explore women’s growth while mothering through displacement. This represents a gap, given the recognition in other areas that suffering, adversity and trauma can lay fertile soil for growth in the mothering role and the relationships between women and their children (Muzik and Rosenblum, 2017).

Again, consistent with the ‘traumatised victim’ narrative, research with those working with displaced people has typically focused on vicarious traumatisation, compassion fatigue or burnout (Chan et al, 2016). The concept of vicarious post-traumatic growth recognises that those working with people who have experienced various traumas can be changed in profound and positive ways by their work (Arnold et al, 2005). The concept of ‘vicarious resilience’ also describes the positive consequences of working with trauma survivors, including experiencing personal strength, growth and empowerment (Hernández et al, 2010). Vicarious resilience highlights how trauma survivors and those bearing witness to their stories can be engaged in a mutually healing relationship (Hernandez-Wolfe, 2018). These processes have been given little attention within the context of forced displacement (Chan et al, 2016). There is only one known study exploring growth among those working with displaced people, which concluded that the distressing nature of this work sits alongside growth, reward and transformation (Barrington and Shakespeare-Finch, 2013). This study took place within one Australian organisation and called for replication across other countries and contexts. There has been no exploration of vicarious growth experiences specifically about displaced women, which is pertinent given the gendered context in which displacement unfolds.

Research aims

Set within a wish to contribute to a more nuanced and empowering ‘multiplicity of stories’, the initial aim of this research was to explore how women construct their resilience and growth through mothering their children in the context of forced displacement. As I built relationships with the community of displaced women over time, my observations and own experience of growth in relation to the women prompted an additional exploration of relational growth among the Playback Theatre volunteers working with the women.

Method

Research approach

The research is underpinned by a narrative approach: understanding that people make meaning of their experiences through the stories they tell (Murray, 2007). The aim of narrative research is not to get to the ‘truth’ but to understand how meanings are constructed contextually and relationally (Bhattacharya, 2016). To contextualise the women’s stories more deeply, I also drew on ethnography (Tedlock, 1991). Ethnography stresses the importance of developing relationships with people and their contexts over time, which involved engaging in the ‘rhythms of life’ in the women’s group over two years (Hammersley, 2006; Atkinson, 2015). This made possible a multi-layered, evolving exploration of women’s growth and development in the context of displacement.

Research context

Consistent with an ethnographic approach, I attended the women’s group regularly over a two-year period, building relationships with the displaced women, Playback Theatre facilitators and volunteers. Women attending the group had been displaced from countries all over the world; some had recently arrived, while others had lived in the UK for several years. Many women attended the group with their children. I came to know the women’s contexts, stories and day-to-day lives through Playback, conversation and being with one another. Observations and informal conversations were documented over time through detailed reflective and reflexive note taking in addition to more formal recorded and transcribed interviews. The research and analysis were constructed in the context of multiple stories told and witnessed over time in relationship with this community of women.

The women

Four displaced women met with me and shared their stories in more detail. The women were all mothers to young children. All the women would be identified as coming from Black and minority ethnic communities. Their countries of origin were Azerbaijan, Sudan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. Pre-displacement, the women had a variety of occupations: a lab technician, a doctor, a lawyer and a full-time mother. Since being in the UK the women were predominantly full-time mothers, although one woman was studying and another was engaged in a variety of voluntary roles in the local community. The time they had been living in the UK ranged from 18 months to nine years. All four women spoke English proficiently.

Five Playback Theatre volunteers also met with me to share their stories. All the volunteers were White, Western women. They were also all mothers and one was a grandmother. The time they had spent with the women’s group ranged from six months to 12 years.

The displaced women and the volunteers are all women; however, for ease of distinction, in this account the displaced women will be referred to as ‘the women’ and the Playback volunteers as ‘the volunteers’.

Hearing and analysing stories

For the audio-recorded interviews, I met with the women where they felt most comfortable, typically in their homes. Volunteer interviews were conducted by Skype, due to restrictions imposed by COVID-19. All interviews were initiated with an open question. I invited the women to tell me what it had been like for them to mother their child(ren) through displacement. Volunteers were asked to talk about their experiences of working with displaced women and their children. Each person was then given space to tell their story uninterrupted until they indicated the end of their narration (Jovchelovitch and Bauer, 2000). Stories were expanded through follow-up questioning, which varied according to the flow of the narration. I often asked more explicitly about the teller’s strengths, resources and growth. For example: In telling me your story what do you see as your strengths as a woman and a mother? When recording was stopped, there was typically a natural unfolding of rich informal conversation and reflection. Paper notes were made detailing these follow-up reflections, which were used to inform the analysis. Participants were offered a transcript or recording of their story. After a copy of their story had been received, I invited the women to meet with me for further unrecorded conversations to reflect on their story – a contrast to their experience of immigration interviews. The intention was to put the women at ease and encourage a flowing ‘conversation’ rather than an ‘interview’ in which they were being ‘listened to’ by a third party. Paper notes from these conversations were shared with the women and used to guide analysis.

One woman was uncomfortable with being audio recorded; instead, I wrote down our conversation (edited and approved by the interviewee) and used this. For all other interviews, I analysed full verbatim transcripts. In total, eight transcripts and one set of interview notes were included in the analysis, comprising three transcripts from interviews with the women and five transcripts from interviews with volunteers.

Drawing on McCormack (2004), I mapped out story summaries for each transcript, allowing me to see the shape, structure and movement of the story. Story summaries were taken back to the teller for reflection and comment. I condensed the story summaries, looking at them alongside one another to identify narrative themes across stories. I moved iteratively between wider structural themes and a finer grain analysis of narrative positioning guided by Bamberg (1997) to develop themes.

Ethics

It is acknowledged that power imbalances can make it difficult to obtain truly informed, voluntary consent from displaced people and it is possible that the women may have felt obligated to participate (Ellis et al, 2007). Beyond formal university ethics processes, a strong commitment to reflective ethical practice was embraced throughout the research process. Taking time to build relationships reduces the impact of power, creating a trusting space for stories to be told (Birman, 2005). In the women’s group, I had multiple conversations with the women about the research and their lives before asking them whether they wished to participate in an interview. Information sheets and consent forms were provided in English and Arabic. Identifying details were removed from interview transcripts and each participant was given a pseudonym.

Analysis

Following a brief account of the ethnographic setting, I will explore resilience and growth narratives from the women’s stories and those from the volunteers’ stories.

Ethnographic setting: the community of the women’s group

Through being with the women’s group over time, I experienced and observed how women’s resilience and growth was co-constructed through relationship, community and shared story. The first part of the group was marked by welcoming and coming together through tea and informal conversation. This connection was built on through facilitated games emphasising the links between us as women, before moving into sharing and re-enacting stories through Playback. Stories told included struggles through trauma, separation from family and community, isolation, loss, uncertainty, racism, Islamophobia and discrimination. Within these narratives of suffering, there was often also a recognition of strength, growth and empowerment as women and mothers. ‘Big’ stories of loss and trauma were not always at the forefront and instead could be the backdrop to ‘smaller’ anecdotes of day-to-day life. The telling, enacting and witnessing of stories moved beyond the individual, in which ‘I’ became the collective ‘we’, comprising all of us in the group. Meaning was made of suffering, resilience and growth at a shared level, generating a sense of community and empowerment. For example, in one group, after hearing another woman’s story, one woman commented that “We have all suffered, but we all have strength and value despite our circumstances.”

Women’s stories

Beyond victimhood

Rabia and Guvva constructed narratives of moving from mothering within wider familial support structures, to mothering alone post-displacement. Both women articulated the challenges of this and the weight of sole responsibility for their children. Within their narratives, they also constructed themselves as strong or growthful, often through the necessity of navigating difficulties alone. For example, Guvva expresses:

‘It was difficult for me at first because I couldn’t cook anything for her, but UK teach me to do everything and now I have all skills about life, about domestic life … because here you don’t have anyone to help you and for everything, from small domestic issues, to your interview with Home Office … you have to do yourself.’

Guvva starts by expressing her difficulty in feeling unable to provide for her daughter in the UK. In keeping with the dominant ‘victim’ story she builds a picture of herself as vulnerable and alone, and the UK as a ‘teacher’. However, she is not a passive ‘pupil’ speaking of her active learning and development as she navigated this experience of being alone. Guvva goes on to say: “After a few months, I became a bit more unstressful than before … Sometimes I remember and I think it’s not, it wasn’t my life, I think ‘How is I able to did all this?’”

Guvva communicates her disbelief about the amount that she has lived through. Using the words ‘I’ and ‘did’ she also conceives of herself as an active agent in this change, with ownership over what she has been able to do. Consistent with the ‘victim’ narrative, Huawa also began by positioning herself as vulnerable and alone, expressing that she felt “completely alone” and that “no one helped me”, as she navigated the experience of being separated from her son. However, like Guvva, she went on to reposition herself as a strong and active agent in her life. She spoke of finding inner strength and determination, which carried her to continue the fight to be reunited with her son. Jafia spoke of navigating difficult experiences of judgement and Islamaphobia:

‘I was walking with my children and I think [youngest son] … was crying and … all the people in the street look at me … in judge way, like they are watching to see what I will do, so I feel like I am on spotlight … They assume that I will hurt or punch my children because they are crying, because I had a head scarf.’

The word ‘spotlight’ constructs an image of Jafia standing out as a Muslim woman and the hijab as a visible symbol of her ‘otherness’. Consistent with Islamophobic narratives of threat, violence and terrorism in Western society, Jafia conceives of her visibility as a Muslim being linked to the potential for violence in the minds of those watching her (Jaber, 2022).

Jafia speaks of her initial response being to make herself less visible, demonstrated to me by her body language. She speaks of being “shy”, looks at the floor and holds her body inwards. This is more consistent with dominant narratives of Muslim women as oppressed, silent and invisible ‘victims’ (Allen, 2015). Here the power of misogynistic and racist micro-aggressions through the gaze of the White British public shapes Jafia into a socially acceptable picture of how a Muslim woman should be (Nadal et al, 2012). Potential violence on the outside becomes internal violence: Jafia shrinks herself. However, risking being conceived of as violent, Jafia speaks of how she moves from this victimised, powerless position, to assertive resistance, challenging how she is being situated by others in society. She moves from being silenced to using her voice:

‘I moved from just being like that [Jafia shows me shrinking body language with eyes to the floor], shy, to asking “What? Why are you looking at me? Is something wrong?” Not just be silent or be afraid … If anyone next time tried to be racist to me … I will look at his eyes or her eyes and say “What? Is there anything wrong?”’

Through this narrative about her experience of racism and discrimination, Jafia constructs a sense of herself as developing greater acceptance of others and her intention to share this learning through the way she mothers her children: “The most valuable things I learnt from here – I will teach my children about that – is acceptance. Accept all the people, whatever their religion or non-religion or their colour, what they do … it not matter your outside, but something inside.”

Given that the context of this acceptance is having not been accepted herself, we might interpret the final sentence about the “inside” mattering, as Jafia’s recognition that her own ‘inside’ matters: she deserves to be a whole person and not to be violently ‘shrunk’ as a brown woman in a hijab.

Reciprocity and meaning making.

The way the women conceived of themselves and their capacity for strength and growth was inherently relational: speaking of the necessity to be strong for their children, but also of their children as a source of strength, motivation, hope and joy. Motherhood and the relationships with their children were positioned as a way of giving meaning to their post-displacement lives. The mother-child relationship was constructed as a reciprocal source of strength and growth. For example, Huawa spoke passionately about needing to “fight to see my son” and how imagining being with him again and “showing him who he is and where he comes from” gives her a sense of meaning and purpose, which “keeps me strong and alive”. Jafia also speaks of her children as giving her something to fight for. For Jafia, this relates in particular to her eldest son who has a disability. She expresses:

‘My strength now I think is from [eldest son] and for him … the doctor tell me something, I think that is my strength, he told me “… you are his gate to new world” ... I just told myself, I have target, I have goal, [eldest son] is my goal.’

Using the words “from” and “for”, Jafia positions herself as being a source of strength for her son, while he is also a source of strength for her. She recounts the doctor’s words that she is her son’s “gate”, constructing herself as opening his world while speaking of her son as a “goal”, positioning the relationship with him as giving her purpose and meaning. She builds a narrative of the relationship being a conduit for them both to open outwards (the gate) and move forwards (the goal).

Rabia and Guvva spoke of the necessity to be strong, but also of how their children’s happiness and safety gives them a reason to be strong. For example, Rabia expresses:

‘I have to bring up kids … life is not easy … but when I see my kids, they are happy, they grow and live their life, so I know, … if I could take them and go back home, they are going to suffer, so …that make me strong, yeah. I have to be strong because of them.

Rabia begins by setting the context of life being difficult, she interrupts this story of difficulty with the word “but”, introducing the witnessing of her children’s happiness and growth as something that counters this difficulty. Rabia speaks of this ‘making’ her strong, positioning herself as receiving strength through the relationships with her children as well as ‘having to’ be strong because of them.

Resilience and growth as ever evolving

Beyond the static ‘traumatised victim’ story, the women’s narratives constructed resilience, growth and struggle as ongoing processes, continually evolving temporally and relationally. Guvva spoke of continued change across time: “Everything change, a 180-degree change … from the beginning to today ... Now I can sleep, I can do what I want, I am more strong than before, more confident and my English is better … I think after two to three years it will be better than today.”

Guvva reflects on “the beginning”, stressing how much things have changed since then. In this context of change, she also speaks of herself as changing, becoming stronger and more confident. At the end of the passage, she constructs a continued momentum, looking to the future with hopefulness. This sense of movement was continued in my meeting with Guvva several months after she had received a copy of her story. She reflected in various ways on how she had continued to grow since the time of our interview. She told me “I no longer feel so weak as I did then, this gives me hope for future.” Other women spoke of growth and developments evolving through relationship. For example, Jafia expresses:

‘In my country … they don’t give the women their rights … so, when I came to here, I didn’t know what is my rights … through the years, I know my rights. … the man here, the women here [Jafia motions with hands level with one another], it’s not one up and one down, you are the same … And I will raise my daughter for that: “Your rights, no one will take your rights.”’

Jafia reflects on when she arrived and speaks of how her understanding of gender has changed. She speaks of her learning over time and developing a strong conviction about her rights and value as a woman. She goes on to look into the future, speaking of how this development will continue to evolve as she shares it relationally in the way she raises her daughter. In her story, Huawa also reflected on how her experiences of adversity and growth could continue to grow through relationships. She said “I can use what I have been through to plant words of hope and strength like seeds in the minds of others, that can germinate and grow there.”

In her metaphor, Huawa speaks of what she has “been through” (trauma and suffering) generating “seeds”, which are germinated in the “minds of others”, constructing the continued expansion of growth relationally.

These stories pose a challenge to widely held narrative that positions refugee women as defined only by their past and their refugee status (Nayeri, 2019); instead, they highlight possible futures, capacities for growth, development and contribution.

Volunteer stories

Self as the ‘outsider helper’

In ‘othering’ societal stories of ‘the White saviour’, the White person is depicted as rescuing or liberating passive Black recipients who are consequently denied their own agency (Dabiri, 2021). Consistent with this wider narrative, the volunteers typically reflected on how they had entered the women’s group by positioning themselves as ‘outsider helpers’. For example, Lisa reflects on entering into the work with the women, positioning herself as a helper and the “poor refugees” as ‘in need’ of her help: “I definitely went there with this sense that, these people … the ‘poor refugees’ need some help and I’m going to help … Which now feels so naive, really.”

The word “poor” describes the women as vulnerable or lacking in anything to give. This constructs a one-way relationship in which the “refugees” are ‘receiving’ the help and she as a volunteer is the ‘giver’ of the help. Ali speaks of expecting that she was going to “deliver” something:

‘I don’t think I really thought that much about what I was about to go and do … But already a privilege that I might be able to go and do Playback for these women … but I hadn’t got any concept … that I could be part of it … I thought that we would go and deliver.’

The word “deliver” is again suggestive of a one-way relationship, in which Ali is positioned as giving and the women are in the position of receiving. In both examples the refugee women are conceived of as ‘other’ to the volunteers: they are “the poor refugees” or “these women” who need help and we ‘the volunteers’ are the ‘providers’ or ‘givers’ of that help.

Growing together

Through their stories, the volunteers deconstructed the idea of themselves being ‘outsider helpers’ (or ‘saviours’) and spoke of connecting as “women together” (Ali). Empathic connections were constructed through links in common experiences of suffering, motherhood, womanhood and feeling. The volunteers also challenged the initial conception of themselves as solely ‘giving’, speaking of what they received through their relationship with the women including welcome, acceptance, learning, care, generosity, strength, comfort and love. In contrast to earlier in her story, Lisa goes on to speak of ‘meeting’ as women:

‘We’re all just women. We can meet each other like that … rather than us being the caretakers … those women are incredibly resourced … and just so … full of courage … I don’t need to … put myself aside in order to be with them … I feel like it’s equal. I feel I’ve learnt so much … there’s this education going on for all of us.’

The word “meet” suggests a joining rather than the earlier separation between self and “the poor refugees”. In contrast to the displaced women as “poor”, here Lisa speaks of them as being “full” and having much to give; subsequently, a more “equal” and reciprocal relationship is constructed, through which Lisa goes on to speak of seeing herself as a mother differently:

‘I’ve got 4 children … it’s not been easy … So, I have had to be strong and resourceful … and … ’cos lots of them have got lots of children … I know the struggle of having lots of children … and not having much money… In a way, that’s the way I feel most interconnected … as a mother. And feel most acknowledged … I feel like they get it … I feel like it’s helped me respect myself, really. Seeing the value that’s placed on mothering.’

Lisa begins by establishing an empathic connection with the displaced women through mothering. The word “acknowledged” and the language “they get it” constructs an understanding between herself and the women. Through seeing herself in the displaced women, she builds a picture of how the value and respect ascribed to them as mothers has been reflected back to herself, germinating greater self-respect and acknowledgement of her own resilience and resourcefulness.

Beth and Ali spoke of connecting to the displaced women through common experiences of trauma and motherhood. For example, having earlier spoken of how she had expected to be in a position of providing and delivering something ‘for’ the women, Ali later expresses:

‘Our family went through quite a lot of deep trauma during the time I was working with the refugees … our family was under threat … So going every week and being in a room full of women … there are so many women separated from their children … they laugh and they cry and they play and they talk about finding fish in the supermarket. And … that’s what you need. … Just that … knowing that they have that deep experience of trauma and … to be in that atmosphere of carrying on joyfully and tearfully all together. … it was the only place I felt “met”.’

Through speaking of feeling “met” and being “all together”, Ali constructs a “deep” emotional connection with the women as mothers “carrying on” through threat and trauma; additionally, Ali speaks of receiving something she needed from the women, that she could not find “anywhere” else. Similarly, within her own context of suffering, Beth expresses how she has experienced a sense of comfort and connection with the women:

‘It’s been amazing to feel the link between their stories and my own … I suppose I know what it is to experience grief and quite traumatic situations … and instead of it being too much, I think it’s actually quite a comfort to hear their stories … I feel less alone … even though they are women from a different place and their experiences are very different … I really can feel the similarities between general suffering … or love for their families or stories about their children and difficulties or anger. All of these emotions are emotions that … I have too.’

Beth constructs herself as simultaneously different from the displaced women and connected to them. She builds a “link” through story at the level of feeling, trauma, suffering and motherhood. She places the connection between herself and the women as a source of comfort. As her narrative moves, Beth goes on to speak of the strength she sees in the women and how by witnessing this strength an awareness of her own strength is reflected back:

‘I have just seen that they have the capacity, even though they have gone through so much, they are continually going through so much … But despite all that, they have … this amazing … inner strength to just still be joyous and appreciating that they have a family and … they can still … enjoy life, really. So, I think from my point of view … it just … [sounds tearful] makes me realise the strength that we all have.’

Beth starts by speaking about “they” and the women’s “inner strength”, locating the strength inside the women and separate from herself. In the final sentence, she talks about “we all”, an emotive recognition of her own strength in the face of adversity, through connecting with the strength in the women.

Discussion

The stories in this research constructed resilience and growth as processes of reciprocal meaning making within relationships: among displaced women and their children, displaced women and volunteers and within the wider community of the women’s group.

Post-traumatic growth theory understands growth as a process of meaning making following adversity (Tedeschi and Calhoun, 2004; Arnold et al, 2005). Consistent with Western cultural traditions from which these theories arise, meaning making has been organised primarily as individual and internal, with relationships only as an enabling or constraining ‘backdrop’ to individual meaning making (Berger and Weiss, 2009; Matos et al, 2018). The stories in this research constructed relationships as central to reciprocal meaning-making processes of growth and resilience. As with narrative and post-modern approaches, mutual construction of meaning in relationship was fundamental to healing and growth; it is through relationship that we conceive of ourselves (White and Epston, 1990; Anderson, 2007).

The women described complex lives of struggling, loving, growing and day-to-day living in which suffering and personal development through displacement represented two sides of the same coin (Kelly et al, 2016). This is congruent with Tedeschi and Calhoun’s (2004) conceptualisation of post-traumatic growth; that at a time of greatest struggle, there can be the greatest growth. Expanding on previous research, displaced women’s stories moved beyond survival and staying strong for their children, constructing the relationships with their children as a reciprocal source of strength, growth and meaning making. Women spoke of how the mother-child relationship was a way of giving meaning to their suffering and purpose, direction and hope to their imagined futures. The women’s narratives connect intra-psychic meaning making with relationships between them and their children: constructing growth as both ‘within’ and ‘between’ themselves and their children.

Playback volunteer narratives reiterated the personally transformative and growthful experience of working with displaced women (Barrington and Shakespeare-Finch, 2013). This research builds on concepts such as vicarious post-traumatic growth and vicarious resilience by highlighting growth as a fundamentally relational process requiring openness and true reciprocity with the ‘other’. Playback volunteers initially constructed themselves as ‘helpers’ and the women within the ‘passive victim’ role popular in wider social narratives of displaced women. In prevalent Western narratives, ‘the refugee’ is nearly always portrayed as a black or brown person from a less economically developed country (Ryde, 2009). As ‘White saviours’ we remain ‘other’ to displaced women; we do not see the vulnerable ‘refugee’ parts in ourselves, while undermining the strength and resources of displaced women (Hamad, 2020). This is a ‘split’ situation in which one group is the ‘privileged saviour’ and the other is the ‘helpless victim’ (Dabiri, 2021). Unless consciously addressed, this split can be further reinforced by helping professions and organisations (Ryde, 2009). The volunteer narratives described how a gradual deconstruction of displaced women as ‘other’ was possible. The volunteers came into empathic connection with the displaced women at the level of womanhood, motherhood and suffering. This allowed volunteers to see themselves and the women together in all their human complexity. This constitutes what Dabiri describes as ‘coalition’ in the deepest sense: a recognition that what is good for you is also good for me (Dabiri, 2021). The narratives opened up a reciprocal process of ‘mirroring’, in which the volunteers came to represent their own resilience and growth through that of the women. Through ‘being with’ the ‘other’ on their journey to develop meaning from suffering, the reflective ‘self’ engaged in a parallel introspective journey (Tassie, 2015; Bratt, 2019).

Concepts such as ‘reciprocal resilience’ describe processes at an individual and dyadic level (Bratt, 2019). Beyond this, within the context of the women’s group, through the telling and enacting of stories ‘I’ became ‘we’. Meaning making through suffering was constructed at a shared level, generating a ‘psychological sense of community’ in which belonging as ‘women together’ generated empowering relational processes (Christens, 2012). I would argue that the language which best describes the processes, stories and experiences in this research is ‘reciprocal growth’. This language highlights how dismantling ‘othering’ narratives makes space for reciprocity and complexity on both sides of the relationship, creating the potential for deep psychological growth within and between people. This in turn generates the potential for growthful communities.

Reflections and implications

This research makes a unique contribution in bringing to the fore women’s relational construction of resilience and growth following displacement. While the challenge in weaving together multiple views and methods as a coherent ‘whole’ may have prevented deeper exploration from one angle, the use of multiple methods and viewpoints has generated a ‘thick description’ of women’s growth. Ethnography allowed for attention to context and the development of relationships with the community over time. From a narrative perspective, this account represents one partial, incomplete ‘truth’, co-constructed in context and relationship. My role as researcher was central in interpreting meanings and retelling stories and my commitment to a deeply reflexive approach represents a strength of the research (Harper and Thompson, 2011). Future research could use discourse analysis to further explore the reciprocal construction of growth at multiple levels; between helping professionals, volunteers, community organisations supporting displaced people, women particularly, and their relational communities.

Reciprocal relational understandings of ‘growing together’ call for those working with displaced women and families to recognise and nurture the potential for mutual growth in the mother-child relationship. This reciprocal understanding also summons those of us working with displaced women to recognise ourselves as part of a wider community, engaged in a mutually influencing process of meaning making, where we too can grow and change (Hernández et al, 2010). This work shows the potential in paying explicit attention to the reciprocal growth process in self, training and supervision within helping professions. It challenges ‘othering’, mutually reinforces empowerment and opens avenues for change (Hernández-Wolfe, 2018; Bratt, 2019). Coming together with displaced women in this way could help the development of what Goodman et al (2017) call ‘communities of resistance’, in which oppressive narratives are questioned, thereby cultivating empowerment. Moving beyond a ‘problem-saturated’ ‘traumatised victim’ narrative of displaced women and explicitly inviting recognition of processes and stories of reciprocal growth has empowering connotations for displaced women, those in relationship with them and wider society. In the words of Huawa: “I can use what I have been through to plant words of hope and strength like seeds in the minds of others, that can germinate and grow there too.”

Note

1

Corresponding author.

Acknowledgements

Much in the same way that the women’s strength and growth was constructed in reciprocal relationship, so too was this research. This is not the creation of one mind, but of many: a community of minds and hearts. We are indebted to the women from Playback Theatre for their deep wisdom, generosity and friendship throughout this process. Heartfelt thanks goes to all the women at the women’s group for their openness, warmth and heart. With particular thanks to those women and Playback Theatre volunteers who shared their personal stories. We too have grown personally in the course of these relationships.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there are no conflicts of interest.

References

  • Anderson, H. (2007) A postmodern umbrella: language and knowledge as relational and generative, and inherently transforming, Collaborative Therapy: Relationships and Conversations that Make a Difference, 719.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Arnold, D., Calhoun, L.G., Tedeschi, R. and Cann, A. (2005) Vicarious posttraumatic growth in psychotherapy, Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 45(2): 23963. doi: 10.1177/0022167805274729

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Allen, C. (2015) ‘People hate you because of the way you dress’: understanding the invisible experiences of veiled British Muslim women victims of Islamophobia, International Review of Victimology, 21(3): 287301. doi: 10.1177/0269758015591677

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Atkinson, P. (2015) For Ethnography, London: Sage.

  • Bamberg, M.G. (1997) Positioning between structure and performance, Journal of Narrative and Life History, 7(1–4): 33542. doi: 10.1075/jnlh.7.42pos

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Barrington, A.J. and Shakespeare-Finch, J. (2013) Working with refugee survivors of torture and trauma: an opportunity for vicarious post-traumatic growth, Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 26(1): 89105. doi: 10.1080/09515070.2012.727553

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Berger, R. and Weiss, T. (2009) The posttraumatic growth model: an expansion to the family system, Traumatology, 15(1): 6374. doi: 10.1177/1534765608323499

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bhattacharya, A. (2016) The many ways of knowing: embracing multiplicity in narrative research, Qualitative Social Work, 15(5–6): 705714. doi: 10.1177/1473325016652683

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Birman, D. (2005) Ethical issues with immigrants and refugees, in C. Fisher and J. Trimble (eds) The Handbook of Ethical Research with Ethnocultural Populations and Communities, London: Sage, pp 15577.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bonanno, G.A. (2004) Loss, trauma, and human resilience: have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely aversive events?, American Psychologist, 59: 2028. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.59.1.20

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bratt, P.H. (2019) Mutual Growth in the Psychotherapeutic Relationship: Reciprocal Resilience, London: Routledge.

  • Chan, K.J., Young, M.Y. and Sharif, N. (2016) Well-being after trauma: a review of posttraumatic growth among refugees, Canadian Psychology, 57(4): 29199. doi: 10.1037/cap0000065

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Christens, B.D. (2012) Toward relational empowerment, American Journal of Community Psychology, 50(1–2): 11428. doi: 10.1007/s10464-011-9483-5

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dabiri, E. (2021) What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition, UK: Penguin.

  • Dennis, R. (2008) Refugee performance: aesthetic representation and accountability in playback theatre, Research in Drama Education, 13(2): 21115. doi: 10.1080/13569780802054901

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ellis, B.H., Kia-Keating, M., Yusuf, S.A., Lincoln, A. and Nur, A. (2007) Ethical research in refugee communities and the use of community participatory methods, Transcultural Psychiatry, 44(3): 45981. doi: 10.1177/1363461507081642

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • European Parliament (2016) Female refugees and asylum seekers: the issue of integration, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2016/556929/IPOL_STU(2016)556929_EN.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977, New York: Pantheon.

  • Goodman, R.D., Vesely, C.K., Letiecq, B. and Cleaveland, C.L. (2017) Trauma and resilience among refugee and undocumented immigrant women, Journal of Counselling & Development, 95(3): 30921. doi: 10.1002/jcad.12145

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gluck, S.B. and Patai, D. (1991) Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History, London: Routledge.

  • Hamad, R. (2020) White Tears Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Colour, London: Hatchette.

  • Hammersley, M. (2006) Ethnography: problems and prospects, Ethnography and Education, 1(1): 314. doi: 10.1080/17457820500512697

  • Harper, D. and Thompson, A.R. (2011) Qualitative Research Methods in Mental Health and Psychotherapy: A Guide for Students and Practitioners, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hernández, P., Engstrom, D. and Gangsei, D. (2010) Exploring the impact of trauma on therapists: vicarious resilience and related concepts in training, Journal of Systemic Therapies, 29(1): 6783.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hernandez-Wolfe, P. (2018) Vicarious resilience: a comprehensive review, Revista de Estudios Sociales, October–December(66): 917. doi: 10.7440/res66.2018.02

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hutchinson, M. and Dorsett, P. (2012) What does the literature say about resilience in refugee people? Implications for practice, Journal of Social Inclusion, 3(2): 5578. doi: 10.36251/josi.55

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jaber, N. (2022) Islamophobia: definition, history, and aspects, Nazhruna: Jurnal Pendidikan Islam, 5(2): 32738. doi: 10.31538/nzh.v5i2.1991

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jovchelovitch, S. and Bauer, M.W. (2000) Narrative interviewing, in M. Bauer and G. Gaskell (eds) Qualitative Researching with Text, Image and Sound: A Practical Handbook, London: Sage, pp 5774.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kelly, A., Nel, P.W. and Nolte, L. (2016) Negotiating motherhood as a refugee: experiences of loss, love, survival and pain in the context of forced migration, European Journal of Psychotherapy & Counselling, 18(3): 25270.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lenette, C., Brough, M. and Cox, L. (2013) Everyday resilience: narratives of single refugee women with children, Qualitative Social Work, 12(5): 63753. doi: 10.1177/1473325012449684

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Levi, M. (2014) Mothering in transition: the experiences of Sudanese refugee women raising teenagers in Australia, Transcultural Psychiatry, 51(4): 47998. doi: 10.1177/1363461514531315

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Matos, L., Indart, M., Park, C. and Leal, I.P. (2018) Meaning making and psychological adjustment following refugee trauma, 12th National Congress of Health Psychology, Actas do, 12: 51321.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McCormack, C. (2004) Storying stories: a narrative approach to in-depth interview conversations, International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 7(3): 21936. doi: 10.1080/13645570210166382

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Merry, L., Pelaez, S. and Edwards, N.C. (2017) Refugees, asylum-seekers and undocumented migrants and the experience of parenthood: a synthesis of the qualitative literature, Globalization and Health, 13(1): 117. doi: 10.1186/s12992-016-0224-2

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Murray, M. (2007) Narrative psychology, in J. Smith (eds) Qualitative Psychology: A Practical Guide to Research Methods, London: Sage, pp 11132.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Muzik, M. and Rosenblum, K.L. (2017) Motherhood in the Face of Trauma: Pathways Towards Healing and Growth, Cham: Springer.

  • Nadal, K.L., Griffin, K.E., Hamit, S., Leon, J., Tobio, M. and Rivera, D.P. (2012) Subtle and overt forms of Islamophobia: microaggressions toward Muslim Americans, Journal of Muslim Mental Health, 2: 1537.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nayeri, D. (2019) The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You, Edinburgh: Canongate.

  • Papadopoulos, R.K. (2002) Refugees, home and trauma, in R.K. Papadopoulos (ed) Therapeutic Care for Refugees: No Place Like Home, London: Karnac, pp 939.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Papadopoulos, R.K. (2007) Refugees, trauma and adversity-activated development, European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling, 9(3): 30112. doi: 10.1080/13642530701496930

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Pulvirenti, M. and Mason, G. (2011) Resilience and survival: refugee women and violence, Current Issues in Criminal Justice, 23(1): 3752. doi: 10.1080/10345329.2011.12035908

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ryde, J. (2009) Being White in the Helping Professions: Developing Effective Intercultural Awareness, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sherwood, K. and Liebling-Kalifani, H. (2012) A grounded theory investigation into the experiences of African women refugees: effects on resilience and identity and implications for service provision, Journal of International Women’s Studies, 13(1): 7294.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Tassie, A.K. (2015) Vicarious resilience from attachment trauma: reflections of long-term therapy with marginalized young people, Journal of Social Work Practice, 29(2): 191204. doi: 10.1080/02650533.2014.933406

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Tedeschi, R.G. and Calhoun, L.G. (2004) Posttraumatic growth: conceptual foundations and empirical evidence, Psychological Inquiry, 15(1): 118. doi: 10.1207/s15327965pli1501_01

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Tedlock, B. (1991) From participant observation to the observation of participation: the emergence of narrative ethnography, Journal of Anthropological Research, 47(1): 6994. doi: 10.1086/jar.47.1.3630581

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ungar, M. (2012) Social ecologies and their contribution to resilience, in The Social Ecology of Resilience, New York: Springer, pp. 1331.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) (2020) Global Trends in Forced Displacement – 2020, www.unhcr.org/uk/statistics/unhcrstats/60b638e37/global-trends-forced-displacement-2020.html.

  • Uy, K.K. and Okubo, Y. (2018) Re-storying the trauma narrative: fostering posttraumatic growth in Cambodian refugee women, Women and Therapy, 41(3–4): 21936. doi: 10.1080/02703149.2018.1425025

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • White, M. and Epston, D. (1990) Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, New York: Norton.

  • Yüksel, H. (2020) Gendering resilience: mental health and psychosocial wellbeing of women refugees, Unpublished dissertation, Laurea University of Applied Sciences.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation