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Soc Sci Med. 2004 Sep;59(5):1095-108.

Remaking family life: strategies for re-establishing continuity among Congolese refugees during the family reunification process.

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Department of Psychiatry, Montreal Children's Hospital, 4018 St. Catherine Street West, Westmount, Que., Canada H3Z 1P2.


The restrictive immigration and refugee policies of many Western countries force most refugee families to remain separated for long periods. Although there is much discussion among professionals in the community and the clinical milieu about the problems families encounter after reunification, the strategies employed by refugees to restore family life have not been paid much attention. This longitudinal study documents the pre- and post-reunification experiences of 12 refugee families from the Democratic Republic of Congo in Montreal. Our results suggest that family separation can be understood as an ambiguous loss, in that the temporary absence of other family members cannot be fully acknowledged because of the perpetual uncertainty and permanent risk to them. Memory work, in the form of shared family memories, attenuates the pain of the absence. Once reunited, family members must re-establish continuity in spite of the many denied rifts between them. The capacity to recall a personal, familial or collective history of previous separation and loss appears to be protective, as if the memory of life's discontinuities provides an opportunity to recreate a partial sense of continuity out of repeating experiences of chaos.

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