Engaging Arabic Speaking Families

Arabic family on a picnic

The challenges faced by families of diverse Arabic speaking backgrounds, particularly as they relate to marriage and family relationships, are understood by those families as stemming from their process of migration, settlement and acculturation.

The process of settlement and acculturation is not a linear process achieved progressively by first, second and then third generations respectively. Rather, settlement and acculturation is a complex process that can progress, stall or reverse gains made by previous generations.

The influences and pressures of settlement and acculturation affect every family member and operate in every facet of family life including child bearing, parenting young children, school functioning, adolescence, marriage, the couple relationship and the health and wellbeing of family members.

In addition, many migrants and refugees of Arabic speaking backgrounds arrive in Australia after prolonged experiences of conflict, trauma, persecution, poverty and displacement. The combination of pre-migration experiences, family norms in their countries of origin and a new, vastly different social system in Australia can have a profound impact on the way in which Arabic speaking migrants and refugees function in the family and how family members relate to one another, to their own community and to the wider community.

In working with families of Arabic speaking backgrounds, it is important to ascertain from your clients, what challenges they face as they transition across two cultures. Family relationship counselling and marriage counselling services are generally unfamiliar to families of Arabic speaking backgrounds. You will need to take the time to build rapport and trust with families to determine what their key issues are and how you can best work with them. We outline some of the most important issues for you to consider and how these might affect your clients.

Issues to Consider

  • Migration factors Open or Close

    The migration experience is stressful, and these stressors can contribute to tension within the family, as all family members adjust to life in a new country and a new culture which is strongly characterised by individualism. Migration and settlement factors include:

    • Pre-migration experience including torture, trauma and separation of extended family
    • Migration and acculturative stress
    • Displaced sense of belonging and cultural identity
    • Racism and discrimination – perceived or experienced
    • Intergenerational and bicultural tension and conflict
    • Low English language proficiency – communication and language barriers
    • Poor knowledge of local systems and local services available
    • Loss or lack of extended family and social community supports
    • Poor settlement experience in period after arrival in new country
    • Inability to secure employment
    • Poor knowledge of employment services, employment opportunities
    • Socioeconomic disadvantage
    • Issues associated with domestic violence such as alcohol abuse, mental illness and in some families, acceptance of physical violence towards women
    • Lack of information about acceptable family practices
  • Bicultural tensions Open or Close

    By and large, families of Arabic speaking backgrounds adhere to values, beliefs and practices akin to collectivist cultures. Consequently, the identity of children is framed by relationships with members of their immediate family, their extended family and individuals who are part of a broader clan or community network.

    Our understanding of the individual in modern Western societies has little point of reference in the Arab culture’s understanding and value on the individual as part of a collective, that of the family or the clan. Consequently, the individual’s personal preferences and interests take secondary place to the family’s collective preferences and interests. The value of children’s autonomy, considered an important part of children’s development in Australia, has less significance in Arabic speaking families.

    The stress of acculturation and the negotiation of realities and identities across both cultures can impact family members at different stages and to varying degrees. The transition across values of two different cultures affects family dynamics, as parents and children try to understand new cultural norms and at the same time, maintain the values and beliefs which have provided meaning to their life and a basis for their identity.

  • Gender roles and marital relationships Open or Close

    With shifts in gender roles in Australia, males and females may undertake different responsibilities to traditional roles which prescribe the role of males as providers and the role of females to child rearing and home duties. For many migrants and refugees of Arabic speaking backgrounds, attempts at negotiating new roles can be confronting, challenging and wrought with tensions. For men in particular, the changes in social and economic status can result in their loss of financial independence, dependence on their wife and frustration in their sense of powerlessness.

    Furthermore, shifts in the notion of permanency of marriage can destabilize marital relationships in the new society. Where traditionally, marriage in Arabic speaking cultures was viewed as a lifelong affair, irrespective of whether it was a happy union, the modern notion of marriage does not necessitate a permanent tie. Modern understandings of marriage, as understood in Australian culture, offer men and women the option to keep or end their marriage, depending on their circumstances.

  • Intergenerational conflict Open or Close

    While cross generational tension or even conflict could be seen as fairly typical of many Australian families, there are a number of specific factors that may impact on intergenerational relationships within families from Arabic speaking backgrounds. There are particular cultural views about the roles of elders, parents, men, women and children that impact upon intergenerational relationships. Expectations of children revolve around cultural norms and include:

    • Obedience to parents/elders
    • Obligation to care for parents/elders
    • Duty to respect the wishes of parents/elders
    • Restricting personal freedom and space, especially when the exercise of freedoms clashes with the wishes of parents/elders
    • Pursuit of education and career development as a reflection of family success

    The impact of intergenerational conflict in Arabic speaking families living in Australia manifests as a clash of cultures and can result in negative influences and harmful effects on both parents and children. It affects the social and psychological adaptation of immigrant families and can result in complex problems, including:

    • High depressive symptoms and anxiety
    • More unhealthy coping behaviours (eg problem gambling)
    • High levels of drug use and delinquency among children
    • Adverse effects on the quality of life of immigrant families which could result in long term harm to children’s self esteem
  • Parenting norms Open or Close
    Arabic family

    In traditional Arab culture, infants and younger children will spend most of their time with their mothers, grandmothers and aunts, who are responsible for their care and discipline. Older brothers, sisters and cousins are also expected to help with caring for and playing with younger children. This experience is compromised for migrant/refugee families who may not have support networks that would have previously assisted in raising children.

    Additionally, traditional understandings of responsible parenting may not be as valued in the new society. Generally, parents of Arabic speaking backgrounds consider it their responsibility to provide their children with financial, material, social and emotional resources; often parents will sacrifice their own needs in the pursuit of their children’s success. This notion of responsible parenting may not be consistent with Australian notions of responsible parenting which focuses on children’s autonomous development and self-sufficiency.

    Furthermore, challenges arise for parents as a result of poor understandings of appropriate discipline measures in Australia. Measures of physical discipline are often the norm in traditional Arabic families – just as they were in Australia 30 years ago. With regards to physical discipline, many parents do not understand the Australian legal system, expectations, and alternatives to physical discipline as ways of teaching their children. Additional support and parenting programs are required for families of Arabic speaking backgrounds.

  • Sponsored family members Open or Close

    For some larger families and those who have been sponsored to migrate by other family members, there may be issues related to finding and sharing accommodation with extended family as well as a shared financial burden during the settlement process. These factors may contribute to stress within the family and to intergenerational issues.

  • Access to support services Open or Close

    Although there are many support services available to work with families, there are a number of barriers for families of Arabic speaking backgrounds in accessing these services. These barriers are primarily due to communication issues, cultural factors impeding access, poor knowledge of services amongst Arabic speaking families and culturally inappropriate service responses to issues faced by Arabic speaking families. Your client’s access to support services may be affected by:

    • Poor English language and communication barriers
    • Cultural influence and lack of confidence in utilising supports outside the family
    • The burden of not wanting to tell outsiders about issues within the family, feeling of guilt in bringing shame and disgrace onto the family
    • In cases of family violence, a fear of being blamed and isolated from their communities, families and friends and the social stigma of problems within the family.  In some cases, family violence may be viewed as “normal” based on past experiences from their country of origin
    • Lack of knowledge and understanding of the available services and resources, including one’s legal rights
    • Lack of understanding of family counselling/therapy  and  relationship resolution services
    • Lack of knowledge of the Australian legal system and the role of Child Protection Services
    • Lack of support networks to build confidence in accessing and utilising services
    • Poor knowledge amongst service providers of cultural values/norms of Arabic speaking families
    • Poor cultural competence of some services providers working in family services
    • Inability of some service providers to respond effectively to women from diverse Arabic speaking backgrounds

Guide for Service Providers

Guide cover

As a service provider, you will provide effective and useful services with increased background knowledge of the clients’ language, history, religion, ethnicity, migration and settlement history, and their involvement in their community groups and networks.

By strengthening your cultural knowledge of the diverse groups of people of Arabic speaking backgrounds you will have a stronger understanding of the cultural factors which may be important in your clients' lives and in the way you and your clients will work together.

Arabic Welfare has created a guide that includes an outline of issues to consider, and useful hints and strategies as part of a best practice checklist, to ensure effective engagement with families and appropriate service provision to support their needs.

Please contact us to obtain a copy of this guide.