Date of Award

Summer 2022

Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


Health Promotion, Education and Behavior

First Advisor

Edward A. Frongillo Jr


Refugee families living in the United States often encounter a number of challenges while trying to build a new home and maintain their household food security. Refugee families at high risk of experiencing food insecurity in the resettlement country. Food insecurity among US refugee families is a major public health concern as it adversely impacts their health and wellbeing, since it affects dietary intake and mental health and associated with illness, poor nutrition, and obesity. Little is known about what happens when refugee families face food insecurity experience, and the role of their social contexts in that experience. The objective of this study was to explore in-depth the refugee families’ challenges, their ability to respond to food shortage events, interpretations and characterizations of experiencing these events, and the socialecological context that facilitate the maintenance and management of food security during these events. Two specific aims addressed the study objective. The first aim was understanding what household food insecurity means to refugee families in the US. The second aim was understanding how refugee families create resilience to food insecurity in the US and how resilience can be fostered.

In-depth Arabic interviews were conducted with 18 Syrian refugee families who lived in the Washington metropolitan area for 8 years or less. A maximum of three separate interviews were conducted in each family, one with each of two adults and one with the child. Demographics, and Arab Family Food Security Scale were collected. Two separate analysis processes were conducted to focus on each study aim (i.e., aim 1 and 2).

The results of the first aim showed that refugees experienced different periods of food security during various life events before and after resettlement, and the majority defined living in the host country (i.e., the country to which they fled before arriving in the resettlement country) as an extreme life event of hardship and food insecurity. This repeated exposure to food hardship events was connected to their judgment and interpretation of such events. In addition, refugees’ history with exposure to life hardship and food shortage led them to develop a habit of using positive self-description of adverse events. Positive self-description of negative events was obvious among refugee families who described their status in the home country as poor; they continually normalized the events and used their poor upbringing as justification for why they were used to these adverse events.

The results of the second aim showed that refugee families’ social and physical contexts played a role in their resilience to food insecurity, including sustaining their positive function and adjusting to any disruptive events. Refugee families’ social networks were one of the major resources that they relied on to prevent and mitigate any adverse events. The support received from their social networks was a significant aspect in helping refugee families develop new skills to prevent and/or deal with living hardships and food shortages. The lack of a supportive context that enabled the family to function and facilitate their resilience to food insecurity was a major aspect that contributed to the refugee family’s periodic food insecurity. Several recommendations to foster refugee families’ resilience to food insecurity participants offered to support them and other incoming refugee families.


© 2022, Maryam Suliman Alhabas