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Refugees’ stories: Confronting financial and emotional burdens in their moves to the U.S.

Refugees’ stories: Confronting financial and emotional burdens in their moves to the U.S.


At first glance, Abir Aljrafii, 43, seems like any other mother. She makes snacks for her four kids, takes care of the family’s six canaries, and cheers for her kids at their kickboxing competitions.

Aljrafii is also a survivor. Her family fled their home country of Syria in 2012 during the civil war. Now resettled in Glendale, Calif., Aljrafii meets with a psychologist once a week. Like many refugees who have relocated to the United States, she still carries mental trauma of the war – even now, loud noises like helicopters and police sirens unnerve her. 

“Our bodies tend to hold the past memories and the trauma,” says Jennifer Chen Speckman, a licensed clinical social worker specializing in psychotherapy who has treated refugees for 17 years. Trauma can present itself in different ways, from sleep disruption to intrusive recollection to emotional numbness, she says.

This can disrupt their daily routines. Victoria Dzorka, an International Rescue Committee (IRC) caseworker, provides support by referring clients to organizations that can meet their needs, including mental health clinics, single mother support systems, and educational programs for children with disabilities. 

The trauma often emerges at unexpected times. For example, routine meetings to go over paperwork can suddenly turn into a suicide assessment as past memories resurface, Dzorka says.

Even though refugee populations around the world are surging, according to statistics from the United Nations, interviews conducted for this project reflected how emotionally draining it is to adapt to a new country. 


Paul Ly, a 56-year-old Cambodian refugee who immigrated to the U.S. in 1990, now experiences sudden flashbacks while he’s at work running his donut shop in San Francisco. At times, he says, he feels overwhelmed by memories of his past experiences that render him powerless. In those moments, he needs to take a few minutes to collect himself, often stepping out for a cigarette break.

Meanwhile, Manyang Reath Kher, 30, of Richmond, Va., says he keeps himself busy with running his coffee company to avoid dwelling on harrowing past memories. Kher, who is from Sudan, says that he witnessed his uncle being shot and that he fled across a river before spending 13 years in a refugee camp.

“I have a focus now,” he says. “I’m going to focus on myself more, focus on people who work for me. I’m also focusing on how I can help more people.”

For other refugees’ families, however, mental health care is an issue worth confronting. Ly’s 24-year-old daughter, Judy, is concerned about her father and how her family is coping with their collective mental health issues. While Judy Ly was born well after her father survived the Cambodian genocide known as the Khmer Rouge, she says she believes she may have inherited her father’s trauma.

Studies have shown that intergenerational trauma is defined as stress and trauma that transcends generations. Today, Judy Ly says she presents symptoms, such as feelings of unfulfillment and loss of motivation in work, which are similar to her father’s. “Sometimes, I get a feeling of an emptiness in me. And when I first started on birth control, those feelings started spiraling into possibly depression,” Judy Ly says.  

With the help of resources such as refugee support groups, children can become “more acclimated and more resilient” after surviving stress- and trauma-heavy environments, says Paula Thomson, a professor who has studied intergenerational trauma in the Department of Kinesiology at California State University, Northridge. But with an overdose of stress and trauma, their neurobiological systems might gravitate toward feeling more adversity, she says.

“Contrary to the popular mythos is most children of refugee parents don’t become criminals or addicts,” Thomson says. “They just become really stressed adults.”

While many refugees and their families carry the trauma from their past, once they are resettled in the U.S., according to interviews, financial woes can significantly exacerbate the stress and anxiety they face during their resettlement process. When the State Department provides loans for refugees’ travel to the U.S. through its Reception and Placement program, official documents show that recipients must begin paying back those funds after they arrive.

“Money that you’ve never seen, money that you’ve never dreamed about, never dreamed of having—and now you have to pay it back,” says Wilson Kubwayo, 24, a refugee from Burundi whose family received a loan from a resettlement agency when they were granted asylum in Tucson, Ariz.

Though Kubwayo was ecstatic to be living in the U.S. and not in a refugee camp, his family began to regret the move when they received their first bill.

“You don’t even know how jobs work here,” Kubwayo, who spent nearly all of the first 13 years of his life in a Tanzanian refugee camp, says. “It’s a culture shock.”

Culture shock plays out in other ways as well. Linh Vu, 52, who now lives in Sacramento, Calif., still remembers feeling out of place during playdates with her classmates when she first arrived in the U.S. from Vietnam when she was 9 years old.

“When I slept over [at friends’ houses], I don’t remember talking to them at all. I just remember being there,” says Vu. “Whatever food they put out, I just had to eat. I remember watching TV but I couldn’t understand anything.” With limited English, Vu says she struggled to find her place for years.

Whether it’s coping with the sound of sirens or having to pay back money that they never had to begin with, the struggles manifest in different ways for these refugees from around the world.

Click to learn more about their resettlement journeys

Paul Ly, Cambodia

Manyang Reath Kher, Sudan

Abir Aljraffi, Syria


Wilson Kubwayo, Burundi

Linh Vu, Vietnam

Living In The U.S. When You Don’t ‘Sound White’

Living In The U.S. When You Don’t ‘Sound White’

Linh Vu

Linh Vu