Crafting Resistance: Mental Health and Well-Being Among Refugee Groups

Today’s guest blog post comes from Dr. Jasmine Gideon, who is a senior lecturer in Development Studies at the Department of Geography at Birkbeck, University of London.

Approaches to understanding trauma among refugee populations

There has been a growing consensus within academic and policy debates on the limitations of bio-medical approaches to understanding trauma and mental health among refugee groups. Increased attention has been given to the psychosocial aspects of refugee health, with interventions focusing on building resilience and social support between individuals and communities. In seeking to understand the development of resilience, researchers have acknowledged the importance of hearing refugees’ own stories while recognising the social, political and economic factors shaping refugees’ lives both in their ‘home’ countries and at subsequent points of their migratory journeys. Studies have also highlighted how ‘everydayness’ is itself an achievement and a potential aspect of resilience[i], and that we need to acknowledge and differentiate the often ‘ordinary’ nature of responses from the ‘extra-ordinariness’ of trauma.[ii]

Reflections from the Chilean experience

Over the past few years my research has been exploring issues of health and well-being among Chilean exiles in the UK.[iii]The majority of Chilean refugees arrived in the UK in the 1970s following a brutal military coup in Chile led by General Augusto Pinochet on 11th September 1973. After the coup thousands of innocent people were tortured and imprisoned for their opposition to his regime. In the early years of the regime international efforts focused on pushing for political prisoners to be allowed to commute prison sentences for exile. Arrangements were made for around 3000 prisoners to leave Chile with many prisoners and their families subsequently arriving in the UK. Although following the return to democracy in 1990 large numbers of exiles returned to Chile, a significant minority have continued to live in Britain. Their knowledge offers a unique insight into a hard-to-reach community and the ways in which they have experienced being a refugee for the past four decades. In particular their stories can offer important insights into how people cope over the long term with life after displacement and how this affects health and wellbeing.

Crafting resistance: the art of Chilean political prisoners

One central aspect of my work with Chilean exiles in the UK has been to focus attention on some of the coping strategies people employed while incarcerated in concentration camps in Chile following their detention and torture. In collaboration with Chilean exile Gloria Miqueles, and Chilean film maker Carmen Luz Parot, I have produced a film, Crafting Resistance: the Art of Chilean Political Prisoners that reflects on the importance of ‘ordinary’ responses to trauma. The film highlights how many of the political prisoners organised themselves to produce craft objects while in the prison camps. Although many of the objects were sold overseas to raise vital funds to support the Chilean resistance, the film primarily reflects on what the process of making the craftwork meant to participants: the importance of creating craft as a means of coping with the extreme circumstances they faced and how essential this was for maintaining their mental health and well-being.

One participant, Bea, who was held in the women’s prison camp, Tres Alamos, explained:

Some women were finding it very, very difficult, especially, I mean, we had a couple of people try to commit suicide. There were lots of stresses so having the crafts … and all these sorts of activities that we did was incredibly helpful. But I think we didn’t realise the long term effects, you know, of prison.

She reflects how looking back now it was easier to see the long term benefits of what they had done:

So,… just all the things that we did, you know, the crafts, everything that we did, now I see it was so significant. And how much it helped us to carry on. Because at that point we just had to survive.

Other participants considered the importance of being able to create objects of beauty while living through the horrors they were experiencing, as Cristina explains:

It would certainly concentrate our minds on something that, although we didn’t think at that time it was going to have that historical value. But, it… helped us to at least to transfer some of our energy… that we were creating something, again, as another way of demonstrating that we were not only alive but we’re still able to create and do something nice and positive.

Political activism and resilience

Another theme that strongly emerges from the film is the importance of activism as a coping strategy for dealing with trauma, and this resonates with wider academic debates seeking to understand how refugee populations build up resilience. Cristina tells us how the craft work in prison also represented a form of resistance to the military authorities:

We shared an idea, we shared a dream and we tried to see whether we could live that life, while we were in prison. And also… to survive. I mean… that was also important, that we did not want to feel that we had been defeated. That, in spite of everything, we felt very, very strongly that it was our way of showing that we had not been defeated and … it was our only weapon that we had to show that we had survived.

Lessons learned

The stories in the film underline the importance of less medicalised approaches to understanding trauma and resilience among refugee groups.[iv] They also point to the importance of creating spaces for refugees to develop their own narratives as these could have a critical role to play in creating more nuanced policy responses to mental health issues among refugee communities.

The trailer for the film Crafting Resistance: the Art of Chilean Political Prisoners can be seen here:


[i] Sherwood, K. and H. Liebling-Kalifani (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), 86–108.

[ii] Marlowe, J. M. (2010), ‘Beyond the discourse of trauma: shifting the focus on Sudanese refugees’, Journal of Refugee Studies, 23(2), 183–198.

[iii]Gideon, J. (2018) ‘Gendering activism, exile and wellbeing: Chilean exiles in the UK’, Gender, Place and Culture.

[iv] Tribe, R.H., Kyra-Verena Sendt & Derek K. Tracy (2017): ‘A systematic review of psychosocial interventions for adult refugees and asylum seekers’, Journal of Mental Health.

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