U professor wins award for work with refugee families

Cheryl Robertson has witnessed firsthand the destructive power of war. She’s also listened to tales of torture and hardship, of fathers murdered in front of mothers, and children abandoned by the side of the road.

Her work is part of the post-tragedy effort, the cleanup after the debris is gone. She studies the torn psyches of war-ravaged refugees so hospital workers – who have never known their hardships – can better communicate with them as patients.

Robertson, an assistant professor in the School of Nursing, will have her work acknowledged with the Twin Cities International Award. The award, sponsored by local, national and international companies, will be presented Sept. 25 at the Minneapolis Marriott City Center.

Robertson started working with women of child-bearing age and young children in refugee situations 15 years ago. Since then she has spent time in the Balkans and is currently working to better understand Somali and Oromo refugees in the Twin Cities.

“It became clear to me that what happens during war gets in the way of family health,” Robertson said.

Robertson’s current research on Somali and Oromo refugees aims to form a more clear picture of their lives and the changes war has made in them.

Robertson said gaining knowledge of their backgrounds will make it easier to treat them in hospitals in Minnesota.

“As care providers, we need to have a better undrestanding of their experiences,” she said.

The darkest side of war

Robertson visited Sarejevo in 1993, during the middle of the bloody war between Croatia and Bosnia.

“The situation in (Bosnia) was intensely scary,” Robertson said. “At the same time, you are aware, as someone from the West, that you can get out. Those people can’t get out.”

A sense of loss pervaded her dealings with Bosnia natives, especially the women who felt helpless amid the chaos around them.

“(Bosnian women’s) most profound loss was the sense of betrayal,” she said.

Feeling forsaken by political leaders and agreements such as the Dayton Peace Accord, the women watched their families be torn apart, Robertson said.

The study of these refugees becomes important after wars have been fought and medical personnel must mend both physical and mental wounds.

“Refugees around the world tend to have high rates of
psychiatric disorders,” said Dr. Joe Westermeyer, a psychiatrist specializing in refugees and immigrants.

Westermeyer said some families break up because of death or forced relocation, while others disband by methods more common in peaceful parts of the world, such as divorce.

Even then, the divorces are “perhaps in part due to psychiatric disorders,” he said.

Alone and with few resources, a refugee woman’s life is made more complicated by raising children in difficult conditions, Robertson said.

Robertson’s research found refugee women’s repsonsibilities were greatly increased. Without husbands women had to assume greater financial responsibility and be the sole providers of food.

“The resilience of the women in my study was phenomenal. They lived in grief and despair,” she said.

Robertson said it is important for people not to glorify the refugee experience or make heroes out of those who have endured such experiences.

“We have a one-dimensional understanding of the refugee experience,” Robertson said.

Generally, people focus entirely on the soldiers fighting, with little emphasis put on the hardships of the refugee, she said. This leads to a tendency to romanticize all aspects of war.

“Plenty of people had to leave their own children on the side of the road,” she said. “People have the tendency to glorify (war). I hate that.”

Robertson said she is happy to accept the award but doesn’t feel she deserves rousing fanfare for her accomplishment.

“In the light of what has been happening this past week, I’d rather not toot my own horn,” she said.


Justin Ware welcomes comments at [email protected]