Maslow’s Hierarchy and Refugee Resilience

MaslowsHierarchyOfNeedsPsychologist Abraham Maslow is famous for his Hierarchy of Human Needs (1943), stating that humans are motivated by five categories of need (see chart at right).  The theory suggests that one cannot move to the higher levels of esteem and self-actualization when the lower levels are not met.

My observations over 13 years of working with refugees and war-affected families suggest that the theory is not applicable in all circumstances.

I have worked with many community leaders in northern Uganda since 2010 who often go without a salary for two-three months, and yet they are working at levels four and five of the hierarchy. They are building schools, moving forward with their helping organizations, and providing leadership in their communities, often without a salary and basic needs.

The same is true of resettled refugees who encounter multiple instances of discrimination and fears about managing basic needs.

Three teenaged refugee examples

Most of my work in this area has been with teenaged refugee students who describe frequent episodes of bullying, fear due to inadequate knowledge of English, and isolation from peers due to their ethnicity, history, and lack of English skills.  Three such adolescents stand out for me in terms of their remarkable leadership and self-actualization, in spite of these challenges.

  1. One, with whom I eventually co-wrote a research article (Besic & McBrien, 2012), described bullying and discrimination from the time she arrived in the US (Grade 3) through high school. And yet, she won every honor I nominated her for, including a national award for community service that helped considerably with her college tuition. She was asked to be a delegate in Washington, DC, for the Run for Darfur rally, and she has completed her master’s degree in education.
  2. Another, an Iraqi refugee who spent eight years in second country asylum, told me of constant bullying due to wearing hijab and to her lack of English skills when she arrived in eighth grade. Yet she received a 4-year scholarship to a women’s college, an internship at the CDC, and a research position at Vanderbilt University. Both of these young women are also now US citizens.
  3. The third, a young woman refugee in New Zealand, has completed her master’s degree in psychology and plans to continue for her doctorate, studying domestic violence. She led the effort for a successful large-scale intercultural festival for young people in Christchurch in 2013.

aaaquoteEach of these individuals had challenges at the first second, or third level of Maslow’s hierarchy, while achieving at the fourth and fifth levels. Calhoun and Tedeschi (2006) have posited the theory of post-traumatic growth, in contrast to post-traumatic stress, which examines ways in which individuals exhibit positive growth as a result of enduring trauma. This theory supports the notion of recognizing refugees as resilient survivors rather than deficit victims.

This does not mean that refugees do not need support and helpful social services. Welcoming refugees by offering supportive services and friendship will allow them to feel they belong.

To improve such services, I suggest Welcoming America, an organization that has made remarkable strides in helping US communities be more welcoming and kind to newcomer refugees.

Thanks to guest blogger Jody Lynn McBrien, PhD. Associate Professor, College of Education, University of South Florida who agreed to expand on this concept which was included in a panel presentation, Challenges Faced by Older Refugee Youth, at February’s Florida State Refugee Consultations. 


Besic, J, & McBrien, J. L. (2012). ). Crossing international and research boundaries:   From subject to author for an authentic refugee portrait. International   Scholarly Research Network (IRSN) Education Journal, Vol 2012, Article ID 830938.

Calhoun, L. G. , & Tedeschi, R. G. (Eds.) (2006). Handbook of post-traumatic growth: Research and practice. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396.