Blog 42. Navigating transitions during war and conflict

By Catherine Koini


Last week we welcomed a Ukrainian refugee family into our home in Belgium. A young mother, father and 3 month old baby daughter. Upon hearing the first missile at 4am on 24th February, they immediately woke up, packed some essential belongings and left their house within 22 minutes. To provide some background information, the parents had recently bought their first house in Kiev and had invested extensive time and money renovating it. They both had good jobs in Kiev and were looking forward to enjoying their ‘finished’ house with the added excitement of becoming new parents in January. Up until a few months ago, the future looked bright for this young family.


It is clearly impossible for us to put ourselves in the shoes of refugees fleeing war. We can however try to imagine the multiple and multi-dimensional transitions this family, like so many other Ukrainian refugees are currently experiencing. In my view, Multiple and Multi-dimensional Transitions (MMT) theory (Jindal-Snape, 2016) provides a useful framework to understand the transition experiences of many Ukrainians during this period.
MMT theory proposes that each individual experiences multiple transitions on a daily basis. According to MMT theory, individuals inhabit multiple domains and move between domains and across different contexts. These domains include but are not limited to: psychological, professional, identity, social and cultural areas. It is important to note that there are complexities attached to each domain, potentially triggering positive and negative transitions at the same time within and between different domains. To add to this complexity, these transitions will trigger and/or have an impact on others. The mutual interactions of transitions between individuals and significant others generates an almost ongoing domino effect across the ecosystem, highlighting the multi-dimensional nature of the theory (Jindal-Snape, 2016, 2018).


If we consider the Ukrainian family staying with me, it is apparent that the parents are navigating multiple transitions across several domains. From a psychological perspective, the family are clearly experiencing trauma related transitions due to fleeing the war. Alongside the trauma of navigating a war zone to reach Belgium, they are experiencing ongoing negative psychological transitions such as, loss, grief and fear for their loved ones. Simultaneously, they are experiencing some positive emotions as they feel safe and look forward to a new beginning in Belgium.


Despite only meeting this family one week ago, their transitions have triggered transitions for my family as well. Within a week we have become a family of 8 and are learning to adapt to a new family structure with a newborn in the house. I feel emotionally impacted by the family’s story and worry that they might receive bad news from home. It feels almost like I am part of this war as I hear their daily updates direct from a Ukrainian family member. Psychologically, this period is clearly a challenge for me and my family. At the same time, we feel happy to be in a position to support this family and hopefully make a difference to their future. Research suggests that altruistic acts may have a positive effect on people’s mental health and wellbeing as they can promote physiological changes in the brain linked to happiness (Post, 2014).


Social transitions are also evident from different family member’s perspectives. The Ukrainian family have experienced an immediate rupture of social connections as they were painfully separated from family and friends. In line with the multi-dimensional nature of transitions, this has unsurprisingly caused negative psychological transitions for the parents. However, they have started to forge new relationships and friendships with my family. Perhaps one of the immediate impacts of hosting refugees is that you become their significant others overnight. The family look to us to solve day to day issues, such as obtaining residence permits, translating legal documentation, registering with doctors and social services etc. I do believe that these new social connections have resulted in positive mutual social transitions for both families.


Furthermore, we have experienced several positive cultural transitions as we have exchanged traditional foods from the Ukraine, UK and Belgium. We have also learned a great deal about Ukrainian culture and history, just as the refugee family are experiencing ongoing cultural transitions as they adapt to a new country and navigate different customs, traditions as well as a new language.


Identity and professional transitions are also central for this refugee family. Prior to the war, the parents held very good jobs and were seen as key professionals within their community. Now as refugees, they need to deal with an unexpected change of identity and adopt a different mindset. As they have very limited financial resources, they are currently applying for social and financial government support. Furthermore, in the absence of Dutch language knowledge, they must search for employment in different sectors, potentially leading to new professional transitions and triggering uncertainty and anxiety within their psychological domain.


In sum, this blog seeks to highlight just some of the multiple transitions that refugees from the Ukraine might be experiencing. It also describes the mutual interactions of transitions between refugees and host families. My personal experience indicates an almost ripple effect across different individual’s ecosystems, highlighting the multi-dimensional nature of the MMT theory (Jindal-Snape, 2016, 2018). As a host family member, I am finding the experience immensely rewarding. I have experienced several positive transitions and view this journey as an opportunity for family growth and learning. My hope is that others might be inspired to open their doors to refugees but even more so that individuals (e.g. refugees) do not find themselves in this position in the future.


Reflective questions
1. What can research do to support the transitions of refugees fleeing the Ukraine?
2. How can we improve the support we offer to refugees?
3. What are the multiple transitions faced by Ukrainian refugees and host families?
4. How can current transition theories inform policy and practice during war and conflict?
5. What support/training should be provided to host families supporting refugee transitions?


Dr Catherine Koini is a supervisor and module tutor on the Master of Education programme in the School of Education and Social Work, University of Dundee. Her research interests include international school transitions, promoting successful international transitions and supporting the wellbeing of internationally mobile families. She is a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society and works as a Psychologist for international schools in Belgium. Catherine is also an editorial board member for the International Journal of Educational and Life Transitions.

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