Editor’s note: Lois M. Collins wrote this story while participating in The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism.
Hari Koirala’s parents were lonely in their native Bhutan because of government oppression. Then they were lonely for years in a Nepalese refugee camp, unable either to integrate into the camp or to go back home.
So it is no wonder, he said, that they are lonely here in the United States, where they resettled five years ago. They have lost their language, their country and many of their connections.
Still, Koirala sees a bit of joy awakening when his mom and dad plant and harvest on the farm the International Rescue Committee runs in Salt Lake County.
There’s something elemental and comforting about working the dirt with fingers and tools. Refugees often tell Grace Henley, who directs the IRC New Roots program, that it is the first experience that has felt like home to them for many, many years.
Social isolation, sadness, fear and often loneliness lurk in the very definition of “refugee.” People flee their country because of persecution — actual or feared. They are targeted for their race, religion, ethnicity or politics. War and violence are part of their world.
Some 42 million individuals, mostly women and children, are displaced: One-third of them are now refugees. The IRC and United Nations say war has uprooted one in every 170 people worldwide.
Isolation is “actually a pretty good defense if you’re fleeing for your life,” said Patrick Poulin, director of Salt Lake’s IRC office. But in a new land where one needs to meet others, learn the language and navigate society, what has been a tool becomes a barrier.
Today, the Deseret News continues a three-part series on the health impacts of loneliness and social isolation with a look at refugees. Experts say that refugees’ loneliness creates setbacks amid already-daunting challenges.