Prioritising ‘well-being’ amongst refugees living in fragile settings through the framework of culture and inclusion

A focus on improving the well-being of vulnerable groups such as refugees and migrants is crucial for at least two reasons: managing the trauma of crisis and disruption that has severely affected the lives of such groups, and confronting new challenges arising in displacement, including ‘social and cultural barriers to integration, low socio-economic status, acculturation stress, exclusion and discrimination’.[i] This blog explores how a project run by Holly Ritchie in a fringe area of Nairobi, Kenya seeks to counter the precarious position of Somali refugee women by placing their well-being first, with particular emphasis on the role of culture and inclusion.

Somalian Refugees in the park
Credit: Holly A. Ritchie

Well-being is considered a vital component of human mental and physical health. Whilst a universally accepted definition is still lacking[2], from a social science perspective, well-being may be understood as a multidimensional concept of ‘living well’, combining notions of objective and subjective well-being[3].

Typically, refugee well-being has been approached from a mental health angle, with aid responses including counseling and community-based psychosocial services. Increasingly, however, there is emphasis on more practical interventions to coping with life in displacement. Social support is viewed as instrumental to refugee well-being, including formal social support from institutions and organisations, as well as informal advice and guidance from family, friends and networks[4]. There is also a growing focus on the economic well-being of refugees and immigrants, i.e. ensuring that basic survival needs are met, and facilitating access to sustainable incomes and assets to prosper through livelihoods assistance; this has been particularly highlighted during the current Covid-19 pandemic. Yet there is still a lack of understanding about the impact of such support on refugee lives, and particularly the influence of culture, i.e. in how they access and receive support, and how this shapes socio-economic life.

In a recent blog post, I drew attention to my research with female refugees and enterprise[5] and emerging links to Information Communication Technologies (ICTs). I shared empirical insights from a small self-funded project that I set up in 2018 with a group of Somali refugee women[6] living in Eastleigh on the outskirts of Nairobi in Kenya, in particular the influence of mobile technology on women’s self-reliance and protection. Known as ‘Little Mogadishu[7], Eastleigh is a commercial hub for Somali business and home to high numbers of Somali refugees. Poor Somali refugee women in Eastleigh tend to work as petty traders although they face restrictions in their daily work without business licenses and suffer local intimidation due to (Somali) cultural norms.

Motivated by my studies, the refugee project was conceived to promote the ‘well-being’ and leadership skills of Somali refugee women as a foundation to building resilient livelihoods and promoting community inclusion. Drawing on an integrated perspective of ‘wellness’ in contrast to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs[8], I adopted a holistic approach to developing different facets of human well-being. This incorporated five core dimensions[9] in a ‘wheel of well-being’, including physical well-being, social well-being, financial well-being, environmental/community well-being, and a sense of purpose.[10]

In addition to well-being training, the project has sought to organise cultural community initiatives, including women’s poetry circles building on Somali oral traditions and a love for poetry[11], to commemorate important days such as Women’s Day, 16 Days of Activism and World Refugee Day. The group has also participated in short courses on ‘Trauma-informed Yoga and Healing’ by visiting yoga instructors. In addition, the project has supported the active involvement of the refugee women in city cultural events, including refugee runs and forest walks. With a strong focus on stimulating livelihood opportunities on the back of the various ‘well-being’ trainings, a savings scheme was introduced, and with technical support, the group has now set up a small, collective tie-dye business.

Using insights from my doctoral thesis into transforming norms and habits[12], the project aimed to engender shifts in various dimensions of well-being through drawing on progressive cultural ideas and beliefs and constructive narratives that could promote behavioural change, particularly in less educated and conservative settings. An innovative training methodology was developed that aimed to explore and carefully unpack each well-being theme through the prism of positive traditional and modern cultural and religious sayings, proverbs or passages, including from Somalia and the Koran where possible, but also from broader cultures from around the world.[13] Such an approach was intended to permit cognitive and ideological depth to the creation of new daily habits and practices.

For example, in exploring the importance of exercise and physical fitness in ‘physical well-being’, an old simple saying in Somali was offered by a member of the group: ‘If you do not know your responsibilities and your body, you will die before your clothes are old’. The facilitator also shared key Islamic references and mainstream quotes from the well-being industry, for example, ‘Movement is a medicine for creating change in a person’s physical, emotional, and mental states’.

Meanwhile, to support women’s work and economic inclusion as part of ‘financial well-being’, we discussed the role of Khadija, the wife of Prophet Mohamed, as a businesswoman, and the importance of work permitting ‘zakah’, or almsgiving, that is considered one of the five pillars of Islam.

Somali poem
https://sahrakoshin.wordpress.com/2016/03/08/my-dear-somali-sister-use-the-power-within-you/

Adding momentum to the religious and cultural dialogue and encouraging storytelling and reflection, the women’s poetry events have provided a further platform to exchange and share Somali songs (and dance), and traditional and contemporary poetry, especially as a means of feminist inspiration. At a more profound level, the poetry sessions have endeavoured to strengthen the women’s personal and cultural identity, enhance female solidarity and networks, and help make sense of life as Somali women, as Muslims and as refugees in a challenging environment.

Whilst subtle, the development and practice of cultural well-being in particular may boost refugee women’s confidence, solidarity and initiative and can have knock-on effects to other dimensions of well-being and dynamics of inclusion. For example, a stronger sense of cultural identity and self-assertiveness may further enhance informal social support between the refugee women, e.g. through improved local exchange, information and guidance, and can strengthen emerging social relations and networks, thus fostering social well-being. This may provide a platform for improved economic well-being and even collective enterprise. An increase in women’s social networks may also lead to increased technological participation[14] towards improved digital well-being.

Yet, ultimately, to facilitate broader processes of community integration in turbulent contexts such as Eastleigh in Nairobi, it is clear that cultural and religious diversity needs to be recognised and embraced with institutional-level support to promote greater acceptance of marginalised groups, including refugees. This may then permit the development of cross-community well-being that can allow its members to collectively thrive and prosper.


[1] https://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/388363/tc-health-promotion-eng.pdf?ua=1

[2] Dodge, R., Daly, A., Huyton, J., & Sanders, L. (2012). The challenge of defining wellbeing. International Journal of Wellbeing, 2(3), 222-235.

[3] McGregor, J.A. and Pouw, N. (2017) ‘Towards an economics of well-being’, Cambridge Journal of Economics 2017, 41, 1123–1142

[4] Social support may pertain to three forms of social assistance, including basic compassion and warmth, information and good advice, or more practical everyday life support. Knoll N, & Schwarzer, R. (2005) Soziale Unterstützung. Göttingen: Hogrefe.

[5] Ritchie, H.A. (2018a). Gender and enterprise in fragile refugee settings: female empowerment amidst male emasculation—a challenge to local integration? Disasters, 42(S1), S40−S60.

[6] The immediate group includes 20-25 women, but the project aims to reach at least 100 refugee women, with participating women encouraged to pass on basic summary messages to at least three other women in their households or neighbours (through tea parties).

[7] An estimated 100,000 refugees reside in Eastleigh.

[8] McGregor, S.  L. T.  (2010). Well-being, wellness and basic human needs in  home economics [McGregor Monograph Series No. 201003]. Seabright, NS: McGregor Consulting Group. Retrieved from     http://www.consultmcgregor.com/documents/publications/well-being_wellness_and_basic_human_needs_in_home_economics.pdf

[9] This is not exhaustive and further dimensions of wellbeing have been conceived, including spiritual wellbeing and emotional wellbeing.

[10] To date, the group has looked at the first four components. Physical wellbeing incorporated physical and mental wellbeing, with an emphasis on diet and complementary ‘healthy’ spices and herbs, fitness and relaxation/meditation. Financial wellbeing incorporated work and income, savings and budgeting. Social wellbeing included family relations, friends and networks. Environmental wellbeing has explored the physical nature of homes and living spaces, neighbourhood and community, and the importance of green spaces.

[11] Kapchits G. (1998) The Somali Oral Traditions: a Call for Salvation. In: Heissig W., Schott R. (eds) Die heutige Bedeutung oraler Traditionen / The Present-Day Importance of Oral Traditions. Abhandlungen der Nordrhein-Westfälischen Akademie der Wissenchaften, vol 102. VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-322-83676-2_17

[12] Ritchie, H.A. (2016) Institutional Innovation and Change in Value Chain Development: Negotiating Tradition, Power and Fragility in Afghanistan, London: Routledge

[13] Whilst many of the women were illiterate, a flipchart was used to aid discussion and brainstorming, and create as visual focal point for attention (with a translator).

[14] Ritchie, H.A. (forthcoming) ‘ICTs as frugal innovations: Enabling new pathways towards refugee self-reliance and resilience in fragile contexts?’ in Saradindu Bhaduri, Peter Knorringa, Andre Leliveld Cees van Beers, Handbook on Frugal Innovations and the Sustainable Development Goals. Edward Elgar Publishers.

About the author:

Holly A Ritchie is a post-doc Research Fellow at the ISS and a CFIA Research Affiliate.

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