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Resilience and Religion in a Forced Migration Context : A narrative study of religiousness as a resilience factor in dealing with refugee experiences from a post-migration perspective of Bosnian refugees in Sweden

  • Selma Porobic
Publiceringsår: 2012
Språk: Engelska
Dokumenttyp: Doktorsavhandling
Förlag: Lund University (Media-Tryck)


Popular Abstract in English

Every level of human existence is affected by forced migration. It affects the central aspects of our outer and inner life. However, scientific research focused on the inner life of forced migrants, in particular the one regarding the impacts of forced migration on the most significant values that we hold in life, is often marginalized in forced migration studies. In an attempt to bridge this gap, this study was an inquiry into people’s inner worlds as they strive to deal with this life situation. Being forcedly displaced implies an exposure to the life-long consequences of stressful experiences and involves “…a radical restructuring of one’s cognitive, emotional, symbolic and assumptive world…”, as Ron Baker (1990:65), a refugee from World War II and today’s research officer with the British Refugee Council, also noted. Though often neglected in refugee studies, one of the vital aspects of these restructurings is the process of re-evaluating the meaning of life. Life-changing events that transform our understanding of life and our approach to it and are not only reflected in the visible structures of rebuilding and trauma adaptation but are also reflected in our reasoning and recapturing of the meaning and purpose of life itself. Therefore, in this study, the relevant, often neglected overall research question was asked: How can the immense changes brought on by forced migration be processed and dealt with in a personally meaningful way as life continues its course?

For the purpose of the study, narratives were collected from 20 refugee informants from Bosnia-Herzegovina who had settled in Sweden. These narratives are retrospective stories told from today’s post-migration perspective, and offer insights into individual’s dealing with the stressful aspects of war, refugee and relocation experiences. A vital aspect of the personal stories in this study is that they are not the stories of passive individuals, incapacitated by their stressful life experiences. Rather, they are stories of strong individuals who moved forward with their lives in resilience, hope and optimism in spite of a harrowing and life-shattering past which still leaves imprints on their self awareness and outlook.

The experiences of war and forced migration have abruptly changed the course of these persons’ lives and exposed them to a complex ongoing struggle for self-survival in all domains of life. Nonetheless, these individuals have found means of sustaining themselves by fitting these dramatic changes into their positive assumptions and understanding of life. Consequently, the results of this study indicate that resilience, or the indigenous human potential to overcome complex adversities, does not lie in turning away from negative events and their impact, but in reconstructing them in ways that are personally and contextually more constructive and adaptive to the individual. As is shown by this study, the restructuring of life’s continuity and the remodeling of devastated human worlds involves a religious processing of life’s changes and a variety of religious strategies for “successfully” dealing with the strained reality of forced migration and resettlement. The thesis thus sheds light on the specific religious resilience employed by the informants in the context of forced migration adversities, accounted for from their post-migration perspective.
Until recently studies regarding the pathological aspects of refugee experiences have led the psychology field of forced migration, giving little space to positive factors like the resilience and well-being of individuals faced with these adversities. This doctoral thesis emphasizes good health rather than disease and aims at deepening the understanding of resilience and health as opposed to the dysfunction and disorder paradigm in the context of stressful forced migration experiences. By putting the focus on resilience this study brings into light some positive aspects of human coping efforts, illustrating the potentials, capacities and resources of individuals in dealing with forced migration stresses.

For the purpose of this study, the resilience of resettled Bosnian refugee informants in Sweden was investigated by looking at particular religious components mobilized to make sense of their war-induced migration and resettlement. Empirical data was collected through semi-structured, in-depth interviews with 20 informants, focusing on their life narratives in a post-migration context. The narrative data could reveal how an individual’s religiousness and positive adaptation to various aspects of war, refugee and relocation experiences are interrelated. Individuals in this study have described religiousness as an important personal factor of their positive transformative changes – an active coping strategy, in the context of the forced migration adversity that they faced. Religiously informed cognitive transformation was a main characteristic of their response, involving the re-evaluation of the adversities, from primarily distressing or threatening in meaning, to spiritual and religious that promote growth in several domains: view of self, life, others and the world in general. Their religious transformation signifies the adaptation process to forced migration adversities and is described as a key marker of their resilience. Accordingly, the findings in this study generate the theory that religiously informed cognitive transformation is a protective process which provides the individual with resilience and reduces the risk trajectory, enhancing adaptation to forced migration adversities. This theory, grounded in the empirical studies, clearly relates to other resilience and growth-promoting theories which focus on well-being and positive outcomes in the aftermath of critical life events. It also affirms the theoretical assumptions made by both Pargament (1997) and Park (2005) that religious meaning-making coping is an adaptive twofold process in which the individual engages in a religious comprehending of situational stress and a religious reforming of central beliefs and life values.

Religious resilience theory generated by this research describes meaning-making through the interaction of self capacities (related to earlier socialization, relationships and cultural/religious resources) and construed religious belief (related to the cumulative and existential character of forced migration experiences and the attribution of meaning to these) that shapes the perception and experience of an individual. The theory outlines the specific ability of self – the self complexity i.e. capability in differentiating self-resources and selecting adaptive ones adequate to the situation. It is an ability conceptualized as responsive to a conscious mechanism of change. This theory also emphasizes the individual’s self-capacity – the capacity to recognize, tolerate, reorganize and integrate affect and cognitions in order to sustain an inner connection with the self and enable self-survival; use of cognitive and social skills to protect oneself; and use of cultural resources in dealing with adversities. Thus, it provides an understanding of the individual’s adaptation to forced migration adversities as an interaction between constructed self-capacity, personal life narrative, character of the experiences and their social and cultural context. It has an underlying constructivist assumption that individuals construct their own realities.

Consequently, the results of this study indicate that resilience, or the indigenous human potential to overcome complex adversities, does not lie in turning away from negative events and their impact, but in reconstructing them in ways that are personally and contextually more constructive and adaptive to the individual. Therefore, rather than pathologizing the experiences of forced migration and reducing them to traumas, informants in this study used religious narratives to nurture the phenomenological aspects of their complex refugee hardships, locating these experiences within personal meaning-making processes anchored in their religious and cultural background. From a narrative perspective on refugee adversities and adaptation to them, individual resilience processes are seen as located in relational, situational, social, religious and/or spiritual and cultural dynamics that altogether interact and affect the mental health of the person.


Sal 118, Centrum för teologi och religionsvetenskap, Allhelgona kyrkogata 8, Lund
  • Valerie DeMarinis (Professor)


  • Philosophy, Ethics and Religion
  • psychology of religion
  • positive psychology
  • religious meaning-making
  • religiousness
  • resilience
  • conflict-induced displacement
  • refugee experiences
  • forced migration
  • narrative
  • refugee-centred research
  • post-migration perspective
  • Bosnian war refugees in Sweden


  • Antoon Geels
  • ISBN: 978-91-628-8529-8

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