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Refugees coped but needed more support after quakes

Refugees coped but needed more support after quakes

August 13, 2012

Most former refugees coped well in Christchurch’s earthquakes despite none of them an experiencing an earthquake before, a University of Canterbury (UC) study has found.

UC health science graduate Mohamud Osman, who headed the study, said more support and engagement from local services was needed in order to build trust and cooperation between the refugee and local communities.

Over 80 percent of all participants did not receive help or support from the Christchurch City Council or Earthquake Commission, and over two-thirds reported difficulty in accessing help and information.

Former refugees from Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Bhutan who are now living in Christchurch took part in the study. The study was impacted by the major February 22 earthquake last year.

Three-quarters of participants said they had coped well, spirituality and religious practice being an important support for many, despite less than 20 percent receiving support from mainstream relief agencies.

Most participants (72 percent) had not experienced a traumatic event or natural disaster before. Older participants and married couples with children were more likely to worry about the earthquakes and their impact than single individuals.

There was a significant difference in the level of anxiety between men and women. Those who completed the questionnaire after the February 22, 2011 quake were more worried overall than those interviewed beforehand.

The 4 September 2010 and 22 February 2011 Christchurch earthquakes and subsequent continuing aftershocks have had a significant impact on the Christchurch population as a whole, but, arguably, particularly on refugee communities whose location, circumstances or past history have made them more vulnerable.

A total of 105 former refugees aged over 18 years, who were living in Christchurch at the time of the 4 September 2010 earthquake, were systematically selected every 1 in 3 from a list of 317 refugees provided by the Canterbury Refugee Council.

More than 85 percent of Kurdish, Bhutanese, Ethiopian and Somali refugees were very worried after experiencing constant aftershocks, whereas Afghans who often experience earthquakes back home were less worried (33 percent).

Afghan participants, predominantly young single males, were less worried and had fewer feelings of helplessness than other ethnic groups. Participants from Bhutan, Ethiopia and Somalia had more disturbing thoughts than those from Afghanistan and Kurdistan.

When participants were asked what had been their biggest fear, 83 percent feared death and had concerns for their family safety after experiencing the September 4 2010 earthquake and 100 percent after the 22 February earthquake.

The 4 September 2010 and 22 February 2011 earthquakes and subsequent aftershocks have had a significant impact on the Christchurch population as a whole, including on refugee communities whose location, circumstances and past history has arguably made them more vulnerable.

The dead and injured in the 22 February earthquake included members of the close-knit refugee communities, adding to the overwhelming feeling of the earthquakes and aftershocks as a devastating and ongoing experience generating high levels of worry and anxiety, challenging personal resilience and coping resources.

Married participants with children were more anxious than single participants and women were significantly more anxious than men.

The possibility that the Christchurch earthquakes might remind participants of past trauma or distressing experiences was considered in the development of our survey.

The low support from mainstream relief agencies could be an added factor influencing the level of anxiety among the refugee communities. The language barrier could also be an issue, as some refugees are not confident enough to call for help, relying on family and friends for support when difficulties or crises arise.

The study was undertaken for and supported by Partnership Health Canterbury, the region’s largest Primary Health Organisation. The research project was a summer studentship undertaken by Somali refugee Osman, a health sciences masters graduate at the UC College of Education's Health Sciences Centre, which hosted and supervised the study.


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