Wellbeing in displacement
: exploring the experience of young adult refugees from Syria in Jordan

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This dissertation explores wellbeing of young adult Syrian refugees in Jordan. It aims to bring to the fore the conceptualisations, experiences, and practices of wellbeing among Syrians as they navigated their complex, uncertain, and strained lives. Specifically, I ask: How do young adult refugees from Syria experience wellbeing within a context of political violence, insecurity, and uncertainty? How do they conceptualise wellbeing verbally, visually, and experientially? How are notions of wellbeing actively created and negotiated in different social milieus, and how does this affect the lived experiences of young adult refugees? 
My participants fled from the Syrian conflict which started in 2011, after peaceful protests were violently cracked down on, and the situation escalated to a violent civil war. Over the past eight years, the conflict has led to the displacement of millions of people, and Human Rights Watch reported that there were approximately 920,000 internally displaced persons in 2018. The surrounding countries – Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey – have received most of the refugees although they have started to close their borders turning many of them back. Until now, research has mainly focused on Syrian refugees’ experiences of violence, displacement, and social suffering and their mental health outcomes, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. Far less research recognises and investigates expressions of resilience, hope, and wellbeing. My dissertation builds on and expands this latter scholarly work by acknowledging that displaced populations’ mental health is not merely defined by illness, but rather by complex experiences, practices, and emotions which include notions of wellbeing, hope, and strength. 
I conducted my research mainly in Jordan’s capital Amman and the town of Rusayfe located in the Zarqa governorate over a period of ten months between July 2016 and May 2017. In order to gain in-depth insight into my interlocutors’ experiences, practices, and conceptualisations of wellbeing, I combined ethnographic methods such as participant observation and semi-structured interviews with participatory methods including photovoice and participant-led activities. I chose photovoice as a method as it allows participants to capture stories and ideas visually and engage in critical dialogue in order to thereby produce shared knowledge. By utilising a participatory approach in conjunction with ethnography, I nurtured more collaborative relationships between my participants and myself. Thereby, it was possible to create a space for reflection and agency which allowed my participants to guide my gaze to aspects and dimensions of wellbeing which would have gone unnoticed with more conventional approaches to research. 
My dissertation brings to light that the experiences and practices of wellbeing of Syrian refugees in Jordan were highly context dependent and, thus, dynamic and in flux. This I highlight by presenting their stories through a temporal framework from their decision to leave their home country, to their flight and arrival in Jordan, to their attempts to settle in the new host environment. My interlocutors explained how difficult it was to experience wellbeing initially as their lives were brutally disrupted and they found themselves “strangers” in a place they expected to be familiar. This led to disappointment, but also created a need to find ways for coping with their disillusioned expectations such as seeking familiarity and comfort among fellow Syrians rather than trying to fit into the host society. After a period of time in Jordan, many of my participants started accepting the protracted nature of their stay in the country. This, in effect, then led to what many recounted as tahawwol (transformation) which manifested in how they sought to move forward and un-pause their lives through recommencing social celebrations, establishing their families, seeking employment, and continuing their education. Yet despite recognising that they were finding ways to actively improve their lives and wellbeing, it became also clear that they were acutely aware of the challenges, obstacles, and exclusions that strained their wellbeing experience. Through my research, I highlight the visual, practical, and experiential dimensions of this notion of wellbeing, as well as particular “idioms of wellbeing” which reflect complex and, at times, contradictory experiences. 
Recognising how refugees navigate and seek their wellbeing within displacement is crucial not only on an empirical level, but also on a practical one. As practitioners and policymakers attempt to facilitate their beneficiaries’ wellbeing, they should be aware of the concept’s complex, contradictory, and dynamic nature. Moreover, I encourage them to utilise a collaborative and participatory approach in order to develop a stance which foregrounds the perspectives of beneficiaries which, in turn, could lead to designing interventions and programs that foster existing practices of wellbeing while, at the same time, making them culturally and socially meaningful and acceptable.
Date of Award1 Jun 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorHanna Kienzler (Supervisor) & Dominique Behague (Supervisor)

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