As a religious problem, the dilemma of suffering is not how to avoid suffering, but how to suffer-how to make physical pain, personal loss, or psychological trauma sufferable. Being a refugee-suffering in wartime; loss of homeland, parents, and family members; and the challenges of life in a new country-is for many forced migrants, a spiritual crisis of unparallel severity. Many of the basic spiritual needs, such as hope, meaning, relatedness, forgiveness or acceptance, and transcendence, are threatened in the forced migration process. Unmet spiritual needs put refugees' health at risk. Supporting refugees' faith is important in improving their mental health and facilitating their well-being.
Some people have difficulty imagining that children turn to religion in times of extreme suffering. During war it often seems that God has forsaken the suffering. Some severely traumatized war survivors seem to go through life with the cruel words of scripture, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matt. 27:46) on their lips. Many wonder how an omnipotent and all-loving God could allow people to suffer and how religious and spiritual beliefs can alleviate the suffering. Obviously, not everybody finds consolation in religion in the time of extreme suffering. Indeed, researchers note that violence has different effects for different children. Athey and Ahearn (1991) observe that for some, faith and belief in a higher power may provide strength and support. Others, however, may lose their faith or angrily reject their religious heritage in the face of the atrocities they have witnessed. Elie Weisel, writing about his experiences in concentration camps, said that after seeing innocent children burnt alive his faith was consumed by the flames and that the experience murdered his God and his soul. Since religion is part of identity development, questioning religious meaning might affect the identity development of a child or adolescent.
Numerous war survivors and some researchers, however, stress the importance of religion in coping with trauma. Many of the Sudanese "lost boys" who trekked hundreds of miles across hostile terrain to find safe haven have reported that faith was the main factor that helped them survive their ordeal, in which they experienced displacement by fierce fighting between the Islamic fundamentalist government in the Arab north and the guerrilla Sudanese People's Liberation Army, huts set ablaze, families murdered as they watched, and the excruciating hunger that followed. Documenting the experience of Cambodians who survived Pol Pot's "killing fields" and began new lives in America, Usha Welaratna underscores the importance of interpreting Cambodians' holocaust experiences within the context of Theravada Buddhism, while Neil Boothby describes the power of traditional religious rituals in promoting psychological healing among Cambodian refugee children in a Thai refugee camp. He notes that by creating opportunities for children to grieve and to honor family members killed by the Khmer Rouge, they were able to maintain a sense of continuity with the past and felt freer to move on with their lives.
Indeed, religious rituals play an instrumental role in trauma healing. One of the recognized effects of religious ritual is to create both sacred time and sacred space: a moment out of time and a place apart, nearer to the supernatural and the center of the universe than to the mundane places of everyday activities. Rituals renew the world by providing an opportunity to step outside of it; they renew time by combining the past, the present, and the future.
The spiritual power and healing of the Jumah prayer was apparent during Operation Provide Refugee at Fort Dix, New Jersey, a U.S. resettlement effort to assist Kosovar Albanians expelled by the Serbian authorities during the wave of violence that swept Kosovo in February and March 1998. The prayer was not only a religious ritual but also a very tangible exercise of freedom of religion. Many of the children and adolescents at Fort Dix, particularly those from Pristina where Serbian rule was enforced with the most rigor, participated in the Friday prayer for the first time in their young lives.
However, despite the diversity of religious and spiritual beliefs and practices that sustain many refugee and internally displaced children and adolescents in their processes of displacement, migration, reintegration into their own society, or integration into the resettlement country, religion and spirituality are virtually absent in policy debates and programming for refugee children and adults. It remains to be seen whether the federal faith-based initiatives spearheaded by the Bush administration in 2001 will change this situation in the United States, if not internationally. Researchers have also tended to neglect the role of religion and spirituality as a source of emotional and cognitive support, a form of social and political expression and mobilization, a vehicle for community building, and a factor contributing to individual and group identity. Most of the research and practical measures concerning the effects of political violence and armed conflict on children adhere to a biomedical framework, tend to secularize the suffering of refugee children, and shy away from interventions incorporating religious ritual and spiritual beliefs.