Exploring the psychosocial experiences of Afghan refugees in Italy: A qualitative study


The Taliban restored their government in Afghanistan in August 2021, following an international agreement and a rapid offensive throughout the country. Consequently, many Afghans who collaborated with the United States­-NATO coalition were forced to leave the country. Forced migration events expose people to a wide breadth of sudden stressful changes, conventionally assumed as trauma. This article proposes another point of view of forced migration considering the turning points to understand negative impact and resilience trajectories, exploring the life stories of 34 Afghan refugees who were evacuated from Afghanistan to Italy. Grounded theory and a thematic analysis method were used to infer themes. The results show three themes: the shock for the taking of Kabul, a tragic possibility, gaining a sense of mastery. The last theme, gaining a sense of mastery, displays a form of suffering but also various forms of resilience and new modes of engagement. Overall, our results foreground the deep role played by the social and historical bonds in forging both suffering and resilience in the identified turning points. From these insights, practical implications for community-based psychosocial interventions can be drawn.


DOI Code: 10.1285/i24212113v10i1p65

Keywords: forced migration; international conflict; Afghanistan; individual resilience; collective trauma


Afaf I. Meleis, D. (2010). Transitions theory: Middle range and situation specific theories in nursing research and practice. Springer publishing company.

Abbott, A. (2001). On the concept of turning point. In (Ed.), A. Abbott. Time Matters on Theory and Method (pp. 240-260). University of Chicago Press

Aikins, M. (2021, December 10). Inside the Fall of Kabul. The New York Times Magazine. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/10/magazine/fall-of-kabul-afghanistan.html

Ajrouch, K. J., Barr, R., Daiute, C., Huizink, A. C., & Jose, P. E. (2020). A lifespan developmental science perspective on trauma experiences in refugee situations. Advances in Life Course Research, 45, 100342. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.alcr.2020.100342

Alemi, Q., James, S., & Montgomery, S. (2016). Contextualizing Afghan refugee views of depression through narratives of trauma, resettlement stress, and coping. Transcultural Psychiatry, 53(5), 630-653. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363461516660937

Alexander, J. C. (2012). Trauma: A social theory. Polity Press.

Amnesty International. (2021, October 25). Afghanistan: Like an obstacle course: Few routes to safety for afghans trying to flee their country. https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa11/4832/2021/en/

Andersson, E. S., Skar, A. S., & Jensen, T. K. (2021). Unaccompanied refugee minors and resettlement: Turning points towards integration. European Journal of Social Psychology, 51(3), 572-584. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.2761

Andersson, E. S., & Øverlien, C. (2023). Navigating cultural transitions during resettlement: The case of unaccompanied refugee minors. Frontiers in Psychology, 14. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1080072

Ballentyne, S., Drury, J., Barrett, E., & Marsden, S. (2021). Lost in transition: What refugee post‐migration experiences tell us about processes of social identity change. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 31(5), 501-514. https://doi.org/10.1002/casp.2532

Becker, D. (1995). The deficiency of the concept of posttraumatic stress disorder when dealing with victims of human rights violations. In R.J. Kleber, C.R. Figley & B.P. Gersons (Eds), Beyond trauma: Cultural and societal dynamics (pp. 99-110). Springer Science & Business Media. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4757-9421-2_6

Benasayag, M. (2015). Clinique du mal-étre. La “psy” face aux nouvelles souffrances psychiques. La Découverte.

Bennouna, C., Khauli, N., Basir, M., Allaf, C., Wessells, M., & Stark, L. (2019). School-based programs for supporting the mental health and psychosocial wellbeing of adolescent forced migrants in high-income countries: A scoping review. Social Science & Medicine, 239, 112558. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2019.112558

Blackmore, R., Boyle, J. A., Fazel, M., Ranasinha, S., Gray, K. M., Fitzgerald, G., ... & Gibson-Helm, M. (2020). The prevalence of mental illness in refugees and asylum seekers: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS Medicine, 17(9), e1003337. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1003337

Bottura, B., & Mancini, T. (2016). Psychosocial dynamics affecting health and social care of forced migrants: A narrative review. International Journal of Migration, Health and Social Care, 12(2), 109-119. https://doi.org/10.1108/ijmhsc-04-2014-0012

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), 77-101. https://doi.org/10.1191/1478088706qp063oa

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1981). Die Ökologie Der menschlichen Entwicklung: Natürliche und geplante Experimente. Klett-Cotta

Bryant, A., & Charmaz, K. (2010). Grounded Theory in Historical Perspective: An Epistemological Account. In A. Bryant & K. Charmaz (Eds), The SAGE handbook of grounded theory (pp. 31-57). SAGE.

Carroll, H. A., Kvietok, A., Pauschardt, J., Freier, L. F., & Bird, M. (2023). Prevalence of common mental health disorders in forcibly displaced populations versus labor migrants by migration phase: A meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 321, 279-289. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2022.10.010

Coll, S., & Entous, A. (2021, December 10). Diplomatic Failure in Afghanistan. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/12/20/the-secret-history-of-the-us-diplomatic-failure-in-afghanistan

Cornejo, M. (2008). Political Exile and the Construction of Identity: A Life Stories Approach. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 18. https://doi.org/10.1002/casp.929

Council of the European Union. (2021, August 31). Statement on the situation in Afghanistan. https://www.consilium.europa.eu/it/press/press-releases/2021/08/31/statement-on-the-situation-in-afghanistan/

De Vincenzo, C., Serio, F., Franceschi, A., Barbagallo, S. & Zamperini, A. (2022). A “Viral Epistolary” and psychosocial spirituality: Restoring transcendental meaning during COVID-19 through a digital community letter-writing project. Pastoral Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11089-021-00991-0

de Saint-Laurent, C. (2017). Personal trajectories, collective memories: Remembering and the life-course. Culture & Psychology, 23(2), 263-279. https://doi.org/10.1177/1354067x17695758

de Saint-Laurent, C. D., Obradović, S., & Carriere, K. R. (2018). Imagining collective futures: Perspectives from social, cultural and political psychology. Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-76051-3

Elder, G. H. (1994). Time, human agency, and social change: Perspectives on the life course. Social Psychology Quarterly, 57(1), 4. https://doi.org/10.2307/2786971

Elder, G. H., Johnson, M. K., & Crosnoe, R. (2003). The emergence and development of life course theory. Handbooks of Sociology and Social Research, 3-19. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-0-306-48247-2_1

Fischer, C. (2017). Imagined communities? Relations of social identities and social organisation among Afghan diaspora groups in Germany and the UK. Journal of Intercultural Studies, 38(1), 18-35. https://doi.org/10.1080/07256868.2016.1269060

Ford, D. H., & Lerner, R. M. (1992). Developmental systems theory: An integrative approach. SAGE Publications

Gergen, K. J. (1973). Social psychology as history. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 26(2), 309-320. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0034436

Gleeson, C., Frost, R., Sherwood, L., Shevlin, M., Hyland, P., Halpin, R., Murphy, J., & Silove, D. (2020). Post-migration factors and mental health outcomes in asylum-seeking and refugee populations: A systematic review. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 11(1). https://doi.org/10.1080/20008198.2020.1793567

Greco, M., & Stenner, P. (2017). From paradox to pattern shift: Conceptualising liminal hotspots and their affective dynamics. Theory & Psychology, 27(2), 147-166. https://doi.org/10.1177/0959354317693120

Haase, A., Rohmann, A., & Hallmann, K. (2019). An ecological approach to psychological adjustment: A field survey among refugees in Germany. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 68, 44-54. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijintrel.2018.10.003

Hamburger, A., Hancheva, C., Özcürümez, S., Scher, C., Stankovic, B., & Tutnjevic, S. (2018). Forced migration and social trauma: Interdisciplinary perspectives from psychoanalysis, psychology, sociology and politics. Routledge.

Hamburger, A. (2020). Social trauma: A bridging concept. Social Trauma – An Interdisciplinary Textbook, 3-15. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-47817-9_1

Hamrah, M. S., Hoang, H., Mond, J., Pahlavanzade, B., Charkazi, A., & Auckland, S. (2020). The prevalence and correlates of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among resettled Afghan refugees in a regional area of Australia. Journal of Mental Health, 30(6), 674-680. https://doi.org/10.1080/09638237.2020.1739247

Henkelmann, J. R., de Best, S., Deckers, C., Jensen, K., Shahab, M., Elzinga, B., & Molendijk, M. (2020). Anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in refugees resettling in high-income countries: systematic review and meta-analysis. BJPsych Open, 6(4), e68. doi:10.1192/bjo.2020.54

Hutchison, E. (2016). Affective communities in world politics: Collective emotions after trauma. Cambridge University Press.

Hynie, M. (2018). The social determinants of refugee mental health in the post-migration context: A critical review. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 63(5), 297-303. https://doi.org/10.1177/0706743717746666

Im, H., & Swan, L. E. (2022). Trauma exposure, social functioning, and common mental health disorders in Somali refugee male and female youth: A SEM analysis. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 68(8), 1539-1551. https://doi.org/10.1177/00207640211037726

Jedlowski, P. (2001). Memory and sociology: Themes and issues. Time & Society, 10(1), 29-44. https://doi.org/10.1177/0961463X01010001002

Khan, A. A. (2021). Connecting crises: Young people in Nepal reflecting on life course transitions and trajectories during times of uncertainty. Social Sciences, 10(11), 439. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci10110439

Lim, H. (2021). Human rights activism among North Korean refugees in the UK: Hope for a democratic future? Journal of Human Rights and Social Work, 6(4), 277-286. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41134-021-00183-z

Löbel, L., & Jacobsen, J. (2021). Waiting for Kin: A longitudinal study of family reunification and refugee mental health in Germany. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 1-22. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369183x.2021.1884538

Maley, W., & Jamal, A. S. (2022). Diplomacy of disaster: The Afghanistan ‘Peace process’ and the Taliban occupation of Kabul. The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, 17(1), 32-63. https://doi.org/10.1163/1871191x-bja10089ù00

Marsico, G. (2016). The borderland. Culture & Psychology, 22(2), 206-215. https://doi.org/10.1177/1354067x15601199

Martin, F., & Sashidharan, S. P. (2023). The mental health of adult irregular migrants to Europe: A systematic review. Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, 25(2), 427-435. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10903-022-01379-9

McAdams, D. P., Josselson, R., & Lieblich, A. (2001). Turns in the road: Narrative studies of lives in transition. American Psychological Association.

McAdams, D. P., & Olson, B. D. (2010). Personality development: continuity and change over the life course. Annual Review of Psychology, 61, 517–542. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.093008.100507

Ministry of Defence. (2021, August 27). Operazione Aquila Omnia. https://www.difesa.it/OperazioniMilitari/op_intern_corso/Op_Aquila_Omnia/Pagine/default.aspx

Moise, A. D., Dennison, J., & Kriesi, H. (2023). European attitudes to refugees after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. West European Politics, 1-26. https://doi.org/10.1080/01402382.2023.2229688

Muldoon, O. T., Haslam, S. A., Haslam, C., Cruwys, T., Kearns, M., & Jetten, J. (2019). The social psychology of responses to trauma: Social identity pathways associated with divergent traumatic responses. European Review of Social Psychology, 30(1), 311-348. https://doi.org/10.1080/10463283.2020.1711628

Nese, A. (2022). Migrations in Italy and perceptions of ethnic threat. Journal of International Migration and Integration, 24(3), 939-968. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12134-022-00985-8

Nguyen, T. P., Guajardo, M. G., Sahle, B. W., Renzaho, A. M., & Slewa-Younan, S. (2022). Prevalence of common mental disorders in adult Syrian refugees resettled in high income western countries: A systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Psychiatry, 22(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-021-03664-7

OHCHR. (2022). Situation of human rights in Afghanistan Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan. https://www.ohchr.org/en/documents/country-reports/ahrc516-situation-human-rights-afghanistan-report-special-rapporteur

Pluck, F., Ettema, R., & Vermetten, E. (2022). Threats and interventions on wellbeing in asylum seekers in The Netherlands: A scoping review. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 13. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2022.829522

Qun, Z., & Carey, N. (2023). Translating Interviews, interpreting lives: bi-lingual research analysis informing less westernised views of international student mobility. Qualitative Research, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/14687941221149588

Rashid, A. (2002). Talebani. Islam, petrolio e il grande scontro in Asia centrale. Feltrinelli Editore.

SAR. (2021, December 16). Free to think 2021. https://www.scholarsatrisk.org/resources/free-to-think-2021/

Schapendonk, J. (2021) Counter moves. Destabilizing the grand narrative of onward migration and secondary movements in Europe. International Migration, 59, 45–58. https://doi.org/10.1111/imig.12923

Schiess-Jokanovic, J., Knefel, M., Kantor, V., Weindl, D., Schäfer, I., & Lueger-Schuster, B. (2022). The boundaries between complex posttraumatic stress disorder symptom clusters and post-migration living difficulties in traumatised Afghan refugees: A network analysis. Conflict and Health, 16(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13031-022-00455-z

Schlaudt, V. A., Bosson, R., Williams, M. T., German, B., Hooper, L. M., Frazier, V., Carrico, R., & Ramirez, J. (2020). Traumatic experiences and mental health risk for refugees. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(6), 1943. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17061943

Shoib, S., Saeed, F., Dazhamyar, A. R., Armiya'u, A. Y., Badawy, M. M., Shah, J., & Chandradasa, M. (2022). Women in Afghanistan: a call for action. The lancet. Psychiatry, 9(5), 342–343. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(22)00039-6

Slobodin, O., & De Jong, J. T. (2015). Mental health interventions for traumatized asylum seekers and refugees: What do we know about their efficacy? International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 61(1), 17-26. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020764014535752

Soller, B., Goodkind, J. R., Greene, R. N., Browning, C. R., & Shantzek, C. (2018). Ecological networks and community attachment and support among recently resettled refugees. American Journal of Community Psychology, 61(3-4), 332-343. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajcp.12240

Stenner, P. (2017). Liminality and experience. A transdisciplinary approach to the psychosocial. Palgrave Macmillan.

Summerfield, D. (1999). A critique of seven assumptions behind psychological trauma programmes in war-affected areas. Social Science & Medicine, 48(10), 1449-1462. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0277-9536(98)00450-x

Suurmond, J., Woudstra, A., & Essink-Bot, M.-L. (2016). The interpreter as co-interviewer: the role of the interpreter during interviews in cross-language health research. Journal of Health Services Research & Policy, 21(3), 172–177. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26746954

Tavory, I., & Timmermans, S. (2014). Abductive analysis: Theorizing qualitative research. University of Chicago Press.

Tessitore, F., & Margherita, G. (2017). A review of Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Italy: Where is the psychological research going? Mediterranean Journal of Clinical Psychology, 5(2). https://doi.org/10.6092/2282-1619/2017.5.1612

The Guardian. (2021, August 16). Timeline: the Taliban’s sweeping offensive in Afghanistan. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/16/timeline-the-talibans-sweeping-offensive-in-afghanistan

UNHCR. (2022). Global trends Forced displacemet in 2021. https://www.unhcr.org/publications/brochures/62a9d1494/global-trends-report-2021.html

Unipd. (2021, October 22). Unipd 4 Afghanistan. Università degli studi di Padova. https://www.unipd.it/unipd-4-afghanistan

Valencia, Y. (2017). Risk and security on the Mexico-to-US migrant journey: women’s testimonios of violence. Gender, Place & Culture, 24, 1530 - 1548. https://doi.org/10.1080/0966369X.2017.1352566

Villalonga-Olives, E., Wind, T., Armand, A., Yirefu, M., Smith, R., & Aldrich, D. (2022). Social-capital-based mental health interventions for refugees: A systematic review. Social Science & Medicine, 301, 114787. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2022.114787

Wachter, K., Dalpe, J., Bonz, A., Drozdowski, H., & Hermer, J. (2021). A scoping review of social support interventions with refugees in resettlement contexts: Implications for practice and applied research. Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies, 19(4), 557-572. https://doi.org/10.1080/15562948.2020.1854917

Wagner-Pacifici, R. (2017). What is an event? University of Chicago Press.

WFP. (2022). WFP Afghanistan Situation Report. https://reliefweb.int/report/afghanistan/wfp-afghanistan-situation-report-2-august-2022

Wingens, M., Windzio, M., Valk, H. D., & Aybek, C. (2011). A life-course perspective on migration and integration. Springer.

Womersley, G. (2020). (Un)imagination and (im)mobility: Exploring the past and constructing possible futures among refugee victims of torture in Greece. Culture & Psychology, 26(4), 713-731. https://doi.org/10.1177/1354067x19899066

Zamperini A., & Menegatto, M. (2018). Tortura psicologica e trauma psichico: La legge e la scienza. Sudi sulla Questione Criminale, 2, 81-93. https://doi:10.7383/91000

Zapata-Barrero, R., & Yalaz, E. (2022). Qualitative Methods in Migration Research. In: Scholten, P. (eds) Introduction to Migration Studies. IMISCOE Research Series. Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-92377-8_25

Zittoun, T. (2012). Life-course: A socio-cultural perspective. Oxford Handbooks Online.

Full Text: PDF


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribuzione - Non commerciale - Non opere derivate 3.0 Italia License.