Loneliness and the Refugee Experience

In a world increasingly interconnected through digital platforms and social media, it may seem illogical that loneliness is a prevalent issue affecting people from all walks of life. But loneliness goes beyond physical isolation; it encompasses the profound emotional and psychological void that can emerge when individuals lack meaningful social connections. This challenge is often intensified for refugees who have fled to a new country and left behind their homes and the networks that once gave them a sense of belonging and inclusion.  

Loneliness is a universal human experience that can significantly impact mental and physical well-being. United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy even compared the effects of social disconnection to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, highlighting the severity of the issue.  

Loneliness and physical well-being

While loneliness is often considered an emotional state, its reach goes beyond feelings of sadness and isolation. Research has shown that chronic loneliness can have tangible effects on the body, giving rise to many physical symptoms that may surprise many. For example, loneliness has been linked to increased inflammation levels in the body. Chronic inflammation is known to contribute to various health problems, including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and even certain cancers.  

The stress of loneliness can trigger the release of stress hormones such as cortisol, which, when chronically elevated, can lead to a weakened immune system. This makes individuals more susceptible to infections and illnesses. It’s no wonder that studies have found lonely individuals report more frequent medical conditions and longer recovery times.  

The toll of loneliness isn’t confined to physical health; it can also affect sleep patterns. Insomnia and disrupted sleep are common among those grappling with loneliness. Sleep deprivation, in turn, can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and isolation, creating a feedback loop that’s hard to break.  

Loneliness and mental well-being

Loneliness is also intertwined with poor mental health. Feelings of isolation can contribute to the development of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, which can further isolate individuals from their social networks. The sense of hopelessness that often accompanies loneliness can be the start of more severe mental health issues.  

The unique experience of refugees and loneliness          

Loneliness is a complex emotion that can severely impact one’s mental and physical well-being.  For refugees like Najla Sbie, the journey of seeking safety and a new beginning often comes with its unique challenges, including the sense of isolation that comes from leaving one’s homeland.  

Leaving behind familiar faces and cultural ties, refugees often find themselves in an environment where they lack the support networks they once relied upon. After fleeing Syria, Najla lived in Malaysia before arriving in Australia. Najla says, “I felt excitement about being settled and having a new home and future in Australia. At the same time, I was anxious about starting over again from the beginning, building connections and a feeling of belonging.”  

Najla explains that connecting with people from a different culture was very difficult. “I have a different culture. I have a different background. I have an accent. These things make it hard for me to relate to simple things”, she says. Najla goes on to explain that initially, everyday things like a conversation about the local soccer team or other references to everyday life were often difficult for her to understand and relate to, making it hard to contribute to discussions. Najla found that her age and stage of life also contributed to the difficulty in building a social network, as many people around her age had children and established social circles.  

Najla shared that her work also played a huge part in forming connections, “I was a little bit shy to engage in activities like meetup groups or community gatherings,” she said. Instead, Najla found that building one-on-one relationships was more effective for her. Through her workplace, Najla began forming connections with like-minded people.  

Drawing from her own experiences, Najla shares some thoughts with fellow refugees and those seeking asylum. “Sometimes we try to fit in, and through that process, we lose a little bit of ourselves,” she reflects. Najla’s experience has taught her the importance of staying true to one’s identity and interests. “Finding myself, finding what I want to be, finding goals and inspiration and purpose in my life attracted people with the same interests as me,” she says. By embracing one’s individuality and interests, Najla believes that individuals can attract like-minded people who appreciate them for who they are. “Knowing what I want, who I am in this new country and environment, and my purpose of being is what makes other people interested in me,” Najla said.  

Speed-friending: An opportunity for connection

Recognising that around a quarter of Australians have experienced loneliness at some point, Welcome Merchant is hosting a now sold-out Speed-Friending event in Sydney, creating a safe and intimate space for people to come together to form new connections with others who understand their experiences. The event, hosted by Jennifer Wong, aims to address the challenge of making friends in a new environment. As Sydney comes to terms with being voted as the third least friendly city in the world in the Time Out Index, events like this have an important role to play in helping to address the loneliness problem.  

Welcome Merchant speed-friending event details  

Date: Friday, 1st September

Time: 6:30 PM – 8:00 PM

Venue: Canva Space, 110 Kippax St, Surry Hills (near Central station)

Cost: $40 (includes a welcome drink & food)

Hosted by: Jennifer Wong, host of ABC’s Chopsticks or Fork show  

Join the waitlist here.      

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