Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Resilience in Arab American Couples after September 11, 2001: A Systems Perspective

Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Resilience in Arab American Couples after September 11, 2001: A Systems Perspective

Article excerpt

Guided by a family resiliency model grounded in systems theory and social constructionism, we conducted in-depth interviews to explore how 18 Arab American couples living in New York and New Jersey perceived and dealt with the terrorist attacks and aftereffects of September 11, 2001. Results are organized around five themes: Making sense of the attacks; the social environment after September 11, 2001; construction of identity: Arab and/or American; how couples cope: reactions and resources; and immigration and acculturation. Clinical recommendations include helping couples to uncover and to explore conflicts in both Arab and American identities, using genograms to deal with family-of-origin histories, recognizing specific couple dynamics linked to traditional gender roles, helping couples connect to religious and cultural communities, and assessing acculturation.

Times of crisis and hardship offer opportunities to examine family strengths and resilience (Walsh, 1996). Given recent world events, studying resiliency in the face of adversity seems particularly appropriate for members of the Arab American community. In Arab culture, there is a strong emphasis on family cohesion and loyalty (Nassar-McMillan & Hakim-Larson, 2003). The dynamics of Arab couples, in particular, are significantly influenced by their family of origin, extended families, significant members of the cultural and religious communities, neighbors and extended communities (Haj-Yahia, 2000). These distinctive qualities suggest that families will be a source of strength during adversity. A basic premise of a family resiliency approach is that families provide meaning and guidance through the process of overcoming a source of struggle. These positive qualities might take the form of previous experience with the hardship or new coping skills developed through family problem solving. As a result of their efforts to work through crises, families and their members emerge stronger and more resourceful.

Arab families have survived a long history of war and terror (Hourani, 1991). Their survival as a family has been dependent on the development of various coping skills. These coping skills have been furthered by the experience of immigrating to the United States. Resilience in overcoming hardships has given them unique strengths that can be utilized during future adversity. By understanding these strength-based responses to intense and prolonged stress, family therapists can help Arab American clients with current and future struggles.

Arab American families experienced many struggles as a result of the attacks on September 11, 2001. These included making meaning of the attacks, grieving the loss of family and friends, and coping with the anger of many Americans against them. The media has reported a backlash by American civilians against Arabs in the United States since the terrorist attacks. A recent poll found that Americans are generally in favor of racial profiling (Zogby, 2001). Further, the poll revealed that many Americans are nervous about sitting next to a Middle Eastern person. For many Arab American families, this fear is isolating. Fear and isolation can limit the amount of support Arab Americans have or perceive themselves to have during a time of crisis. In such crisis, a couple has to define itself with regard to the changing situation and to make adjustments to their relationship, as Ben-David and Lavee (1996) found in their study of couples dealing with the intense peace negotiation between Israel and the Palestinian authority. Couples can benefit from making meaning of the stressful events together.

In this investigation, we addressed two areas of marriage and family therapy in which further research is needed. The first is the small amount of research that has examined resilience. According to Walsh (1998), there is a need for "studies of well functioning families and what enables them to succeed, particularly in the face of adversity" (p. …

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