The Usage of Process Drama with Newly Arrived Migrant Children

Table of Contents


Research Questions………………………………………………………………3



Theoretical Framework……………………………………………………………..4


Critique ……………………………………………………………………………10






Applied Theatre has been practiced in non-theatrical spaces such as integration, education and emotional therapy more in the last couple of decades since it was first established in the late-20th century. This art-based approach has especially involved newly immigrated persons to receiving countries to better explore and understand individuals’ histories and their goals and ambitions ahead. Process Drama is one type of Applied Theater approach addressed in this paper and its implications in the process of settlement and integration for newly arrived refugee and migrant children.

Research Questions

Below are the research questions I wish to address and answer as well as possible in the following pages:

  • How is Process Drama used to identify and address the needs of newly migrated children during their settlement process?
  • How may Process Drama be used to respond to issues of refugee integration?
  • What critiques may be drawn by using Process Drama as a settlement and integration approach?


The Process Drama case study written in Michael Balfour’s, Applied Theatre: Resettlement, Drama, Refugees and Resilience (2015), which I will examine, took place in Logan City, Australia – a rapidly growing city located in southeast Queensland near Brisbane. In 2008, a community services organization, Multilink, was given a small grant to run a program aiming to help newly arrived migrant and refugee individuals understand “a little more about the expectations, issues and services available to them” (Balfour, 2015, p. IX). The organization thought drama might be the best way to do so.

Twice a week, research facilitators with a background in Applied Theater, carried out Process Drama workshops with refugee children, ranging in age from 9-years-old to 12-years-old. These children had been living in Australia less than 12 months and came from various origin countries such as Rwanda, El Salvador, Philippines, Myanmar, and Cameroon.  The research team held these workshops in a local public school ESL (English Second Language) classroom over three years (2011-13), often with the same children who remained in that level of ESL class. Each year, an alternate open-ended fictitious plot was used for the Process Drama, which had been developed by the researchers before entering the class environment. Artistic performance was not one of the objectives, therefore these dramas were not performed for anyone outside the classroom, such as parents or other community members.

The folklore and imaginative plots they used to guide their drama workshops were developed with themes that would inspire and connect the children, no matter their background, but as not to be associated in any way to the children’s migration journey or any trauma experienced in their homeland or along the way. These plots included 1) a Giant in a small village, 2) an alien searching for her lost robot dog, and 3) an island civilization whose fish food source disappears. Each plot, the children adopted their own new character, which they would portray during the Process Drama. The researchers’ main goal was to support “settlement” and the resilience of individuals, however they state they were unaware of their own limited knowledge and understanding of refugees, settlement and resilience before beginning. After their experiences, the researchers affirmed that, above all, they took away from the experience that these newly arrived youth “deserve no less than our fullest attention” (Balfour, 2015, p. xv).


The methodology used for this research derives from secondary sources of literature. This literature includes a case study involving 9 to 12-year-old newly settled migrant and refugee children in Logan City, Australia.  I will analyze this case study thoroughly and analyze, using additional literature on integration and Applied Theater, how the researchers in this specific example successful or unsuccessfully were able to identify and address the settlement “needs” of the children.

I will also review Australian’s refugee settlement policies and will compare the aims of integration in a society such as eastern Australian with the goals and perceived outcomes of the Process Drama researchers and evaluate how this coincides with the recognized needs of these refugee children.

By reviewing a variety of  literature, data and additional sources produced from various societies, I aim at securing validity in my interpretations, analysis, my own understanding of Process Drama, and discussion. Since Process Drama is primarily practiced for second language learning, I want to avert from this aspect and focus more on the social implications that arise from the children in the study and other challenges they touch upon when depicting their settlement in a new place.

However, since Process Drama is a relatively new form used in integration, the result of my own analytical conclusions may be inaccurate. While researchers using the same literature sources may arrive at a different conclusion depending on their own characteristics and the replication of this study may be difficult, I will do my best to provide a coherent picture of the argument and how I arrive at my conclusion.

Theoretical Framework

Cultural Pluralism and Multiculturalism

Cultural Pluralism is the roots of multiculturalism. Cultural groups co-exist in society with also regard for a dominant culture. It rejects all theories of the adaptation of immigrants as unproductive and unrealistic. Cultural Pluralism asserts that every ethnic group should preserve its own language, religion, institutions, inherited culture, etc. while simultaneously; immigrants should learn the host country language for general communication. There is no model of integration. Integration constantly adapts to the changing social dynamics of the state. In addition, to assess the needs of that community, it needs to be a bottom up approach (Hazard & Stent, 1973). Australia is among Sweden and Canada as a state with multicultural integration policies which hold importance of the tolerance of cultural differences by the state and society (Luksic-Hacin, 2010).

Settlement & Integration

Balfour and other researchers from the case study involving the Logan City community, Australia refers to the term “settlement” more so than “integration.” Due to their multiculturalist integration policy, Australia emphasizes full participation by refugees without requiring a loss of identity or culture. In the multicultural state context, settlement is stated as the “long-term, dynamic, two-way process through which ideally immigrants would achieve full equality and freedom of participation in society and society would gain access to the full human resource potential in its immigrant communities” (OCASI, 2000).

Australian government articulates its goals of settlement services as a goal to help new arrivals participate in the community as soon as they arrive. The state helps to provide assistance with English language skills, building self-reliance and fostering links to the community (Commonwealth of Australia, 2006, a:3). The Australian government also uses the UNHCR Integration Handbook: Refugee Resettlement (2002) definition of settlement based on the concept of integration.  Apart from tangible factors of resettlement for refugees such as housing, income support, and health care, the Refugee Council of Australia attests to more important keys to the resettlement process such as: being able to feel safe and secure; restoring a sense of self worth; restoring a sense of dignity; regaining a sense of control over one’s life; resolving guilt; and processing grief about the loss of self and country (UNHCR, 2001). Quality of settlement is directly affected and influenced not only by the refugee’s own engagement with the host country and society, but also by how a person is received by both their refugee community and the wider community (Balfour, 2015, p. 196). The Balfour Process Drama study occurred at a time (2011-2013)  when  the federal policies in Australia were in flux as a new immigration minister was elected and issued a change to the bureaucratic name of asylum seekers who arrived by boat from “Irregular Maritime Arrivals” to “Illegal Maritime Arrivals.” These types of political maneuvers in various states may cause a change in public discourse and relations and position the asylum seekers as criminals. Therefore, the state environment and how this affects the refugee settlement must be taken into account when using Process Drama as a means to discern and address refugees’ needs (Balfour, 2015, p. 196).

Cultural specificity of settlement is also important to take into account when utilizing Process Drama. Settlement is influence by cultural paradigms and difference exists between these. The participants of this specific case study came from diverse physical countries and so consideration of this is imperative since behavioral practices, ideological values, family and community role expectations, and environmental factors play a role that may differ from one cultural group to the next. Community and cultural context may play a great deal in forming either meaning systems of the individual (Papadopoulos, 2007 p. 310).


In Stefan Vanistendael’s Growth in the Muddle of Life Resilience (1998), he defines resilience as the capacity of a person or a social system to adapt and cope well and to develop positively in spite of adversity, risks or difficult conditions of life and this in a socially acceptable way.”  For there to be the presence of resilience, this implies the presence of adversity in which the migrant must protect him or herself from or adapt positively to cope (Henleu, 2014). These protective factors or resilient factors “can be internal, external or interpersonal and include personality characteristics, experience of self-efficacy or having a social support network” (Henleu, 2014). Resilience is not just a fixed personal quality but develops with a person given their environment and relations to other people.

Resilience was included as a goal in the case study (Balfour, 2015) and Process Drama was practiced to identify ways to resource individuals’ resilience so that they may feel capable and positive-not unlike empowerment.  In general, researchers found the children felt positive, a sense of hope for the future and comfortable in the “safe spaces” developed in the classrooms where they worked. However, researchers also found in these cases, stories from children beyond the classroom and project confines where the participants had pressures of “tiredness, boredom, a sense of being overwhelmed by difficulties and bureaucracy” (Balfour, 2015, p.198-199). Most young people adapt effectively, as stated by Barber & Doty in How can a majority be resilient (2013) and researchers observed this as well since the children appeared to adapt and reconstruct their lives suggesting that resilience is a part of the daily routine and social process over time over time (Balfour, 2015, p.199). Therefore, it is not something that can be forced but is a quiet process embodied in each individual.

The researchers recognize, as we should as well, the challenges of the settlement journey; one that is long and maneuvers through many bureaucratic channels that may lead to dehumanizing as well as a society that is not always welcoming. These individuals may have experienced trauma in their homelands or along their journey and anxieties and fears during the settlement process are exacerbated. By being disengaged from their familiar networks, content daily practices and familiar culture, their individual identities are vulnerable and therefore, personal resilience is the facet for how they feel, respond and positively adapt to their own settlement (Balfour, 2015, p. 2).


An extensive amount of research in the past two decades has been conducted on the theory of empowerment and social work practice with newly migrated persons, asylum seekers and refugees. The distinction and importance of empowerment has been made by R. Adams in Social Work and Empowerment (2003) as a “means to combat disqualification and exclusion of users.” Empowerment is linked to the heightened “skills and access to formal and informal decision-making, which changes power relations between the providers of the service and users. In this specific case study, the newly settled children in school are the users while the researchers and classroom teachers are the service providers of the Process Drama.

Literature on empowerment also distinguishes between user participation and involvement in skills-increasing programs and services, and user involvement in decision-making organs (Sheppard, 2006). This theory is concerned with users’ influence in decision-making processes, and the methods by which social workers or educators seek to enhance the power of those who lack it (Adams, 2008). Though the children have less control compared to their parental adult guardians, empowerment initiatives in the asylum context may easily overlook and neglect users’ own power struggles over matters that really concern them, and the challenges they face are indeed structural forces outside the influence of themselves or the social workers. Empowerment for asylum seekers is key to counteract negative aspects of resettlement and continue the process of integration into more oriented endeavors.


Australian Resettlement of Young Refugees and Identifying their Struggles and Needs

In the last decade, 65 percent of newly arrived refugees under the Australian government’s humanitarian program, were under the age of 30. Most of these young people came from ongoing conflict countries such as those in West and Central Africa (Olliff & Mohamed, 2007), had lived in refugee camps for extensive periods and were found to have had less years of schooling compared to past years. Therefore given these experience, these young refugees face common difficulties and their resettlement into a new country involves many challenges, such as recovering from trauma, handling education, maneuvering through bureaucratic systems and also adjusting to family, peer, individual and community expectations of being an adolescent (Olliff & Mohamed, 2007). The Australian government recognizes the need for “effective intervention” since there is a high rise of social exclusion and disconnection that may lead to health issues, homelessness and other social problems. But the government states that with proper avenues of resettlement and engagement in the community, young refugees “can bring a wealth of resources and strengths to the Australian community” through their qualities of “resilience and resourcefulness, adaptability and strong desire to achieve educationally” (Olliff & Mohamed, 2007).

The goals of the Australian case study were obtained from the theories of resilience in the resettlement process (Balfour, 2015, p. 194). It looked at the seven tensions that most young people face when settling. These include:

  • access to material resources (availability of financial, educational, medical and employment assistance and/or opportunities, as well as access to food, clothing and shelter);
  • relationships (with significant others);
  • identity (personal and collective sense of purpose, self-appraisal of strengths and weaknesses, aspirations, beliefs and values, including spiritual and religious identification);
  • power and control (experiences of caring for one’s self and others, the ability to affect change);
  • cultural adherence (connection to local and global practices, values and beliefs);
  • social justice (experiences related to finding a meaningful role in community);
  • cohesion (feeling a part of something larger than one’s self socially and/or spiritually) (Ungar et al., 2007).

Addressing Settlement Goals through Process Drama

Though the participants in the case study came from a range of different backgrounds with a variety of English levels and education, they all shared the same pressure to succeed and settle in their new homeland (Balfour, 2015, p. xiv).

By utilizing these “tensions” from Ungar et al (2007), the researchers were able to efficiently target the dramatic work to the needs they had identified, such as: reinforce agency in the learning process; enhance relationships with peer, adults, teachers, etc; help participants explore notions of identity; and develop a sense of cohesion or a stronger understanding of social justice by adopting new and additional roles and perspectives (Balfour, 2015, p. 195).

Agency was an additional goal of the researchers using Process Drama. This type of Applied Theater allowed the individuals to take greater control of their learning by choosing their own character roles to play, leading the plot, and solving problems that may arise in the story.  In this way, the participants in the Process Drama experienced interacting directly with their learning needs instead of it being an abstract form. This links directly with the Ungar suggested needs of newly arrived migrants’ for the opportunity “to gain a sense of power and control and to understand that they have the ability to affect changes in their lives” (Ungar et. al., 2007; Balfour, 2015, p. 202).

Process Drama and Language

When working in the context of classrooms with limited English language, one main aim is language development. Language development is also a highly important part of being integrated into a society. In the study, the researchers found that those with higher English skills were able to participate and engage more confidently in the drama than those with limited (Balfour, 2015, p. 97). However, this was not to say that those who had limited abilities were left out of the experience. The primary teacher of the ESL class verified that students were able to understand and engage by watching and noticing non-verbal cues as well as the story’s visual elements, such as posters or costumes (Balfour, 2015, p. 98).

English language acquisition was supported through this Process Drama by encouraging playfulness and “real ownership of language, within authentic contexts and for real purposes,” which are different from those usually employed in a classroom setting (Balfour, 2015, p. 201). The primary teacher stated that the Process Drama allowed all children to participate at the level they felt comfortable with in terms of their language skills. In one specific case, a student who struggles academically and does not cooperate well with the other children engaged more in Process Drama since he could create his own role and could succeed in his execution of it in the story (Balfour, 2015, p. 108).

One of the imaginative Process Drama plots involved a robot and an outer space setting. Gauging the student reactions and language skills acquired, the teacher built on this work in between the researchers’ visits (Balfour, 2015, p. 97). She stated: “I thought [the Process Drama] was a really useful tool for lots of different things. I thought it was really good for their vocabulary building because of the story…it absolutely complimented what we do even though we’re not learning about outer space and aliens getting married” (Balfour, 2015, p.96). The Process Drama elicited new concepts that could be applied to other parts of curriculum, not exclusively language or vocabulary building (Balfour, 2015, p. 109). Scientific concepts could be expanded upon connected to the robot and outer space plot. With regard to the additional case study Process Drama set on an island, environmental characteristics, habitats, weather and biomes lessons could be developed.

Process Drama and Safe Space

Process drama also breaks down social barriers no matter the age, gender or ethnicity. The Process Drama work made it easy for girls and boys to participate equally. In the case study, a safe space was created using Process Drama and connections between the students had formed due to their non-native English speaker background and being newly migrated people. Children interacted together more so than in a typical sit-down classroom with required textbook curriculum.  They were able to build relationships with each other and the adults engaged in the case study as well. The drama furthered this safe space and gave them opportunities (no matter their English skill level) to talk and share their opinions, express their ideas, be heard and contribute. Children were able to work how they felt comfortable: to be able to speak out and verbalize or work more in a quiet and reserved way (Balfour, 2015, p. 115).

The drama included a setting and plot that was engaging and offered a shared experience and connected all the students, regardless of their background (Balfour, 2015, p. 97). The drama allowed the students to form relationships with their characters as well. With characters or “roles” they played, the students interacted more with each other to support and work towards a common goal in the plot (Balfour, 2015, p. 98). In Neelands and Nelson’s Drama, Community and Achievement: Together I’m Someone (2013), they affirm that these Process Dramas develop participation in and greater sense of community and encourages qualities of behavior including altruism, trust, empathy and co-operation.

It was important for the researchers in this case study to structure the Process Drama plots around a setting or story which would not refer or deal with trauma stories that the children may have experienced on their migration journey. However, this was unavoidable and connections to the children’s experiences of home and arrival surfaced, but not in a negative fashion. The children used their own experiences to respond empathically to characters in crisis. For example, in one Process Drama story, the children empathized with the giant who did not want to be captured or given a tranquilizer injection. The primary teacher recognized that if a counselor wanted to explore behavioral or psychological aspects surrounding this, Process Drama would be a good way at revealing that (Balfour, 2015, p. 112).

Process Drama and Self-Identity

Exploring identities was another crucial way for newly arrived migrants to make meaning of their experiences, their new lives and support identity negotiation in a different context (Balfour, 2015, p. 203).  In Playing with Identities and Transforming Shared Realities (2005), Rousseau looks at how identities may be constructed through ethnicity, race, religion, gender, culture, setting and other personal identities and how by strengthening personal identity and group identity, this could be a way to improve the well-being of children after their migration to a new country (Rousseau et al., 2005). She explores further how drama therapy with young refugees can build solid multiple collective identities in the group that can promote: (1) construction of meaning (after trauma and separation); (2) the grieving process (loss of loved ones, country, expectations or dreams); (3) appreciation of difference and construction of creative resistance (that does not lock them into even wider circles of exclusion); and (4) development of multiple affinities that employ a range of possible strategies (Rousseau et al., 2005).

It is the aim of many drama therapists that Process Drama may alleviate stresses, tensions, conflicts and possible negative societal perceptions that may occur due to cultural difference and being a minority (Rousseau et al., 2005).  When working with these young participants in the case study, researchers saw them simultaneously struggle between multiple cultures, handling their settlement process and the natural struggles of growing up (Balfour, 2015, p.193).

“Drama therapy workshops facilitate the adaptation of young immigrants and refugees to their new environment through creative work on identity issues related to migration and status as a cultural minority” (Rousseau et al., 2005). In Process Drama, individualism is valued and it is used to construct meaning and identity through the personal accounts of the participants, even when their stories are not being used.

As Rousseau states, “artistic and dramatic outlets are important…as they can help express and contain the suffering associated with the changes that occur at this stage in life, while channeling strengths and idealism”(2005).

Process Drama and Empowerment

During the Process Drama case study, researchers were able to bear witness to the children’s empowerment, resilience and hopefulness (Balfour, 2015, p. 193). The children “enthusiastically” assumed their characters, played along, offering suggestions for the advancement of the plot, and inquired when the stories would continue later during the week with the researcher.

The adoption of a fictional role also allowed them to assume a higher status (such as policeman, actor, astronaut, etc) than children and placed them temporarily on an even playing level with adults. With the engagement of a fictitious world, situations and a new identity, the participants could temporarily step away from stresses of adaptation, play with these alternative realities, and unite in a community that shared a common goal. This process also gave students who did not normally verbally assert themselves, the fortitude to speak out by creating opportunities not normally available to them (Balfour, 2015, p. 98).

Empowerment came from engaging in their individual roles and relationships with the characters and by contributing to the direction of the story (Balfour, 2015, p. 99).It also should not be discounted that the improvement of language, as was present in the case study, also leads to independence and empowerment of newly arrived migrants (Hannah, 2008).


Often in this case study, the researchers entered with their own preconceived notions about the children’s cultural impact that may emerge during the drama. “Cultural differences were less of a factor than we had anticipated, with individuals from all cultures responding in their own unique ways, sometimes even surprising us,” the researchers stated (Balfour, 2015, p. 112). In one instance, a young boy who had initially been shy in previous classes and had limited English skills, volunteered to be the spokesperson of a story that addressed the entire class, teachers and researchers. The researchers stated, “given our perception of him as a shy boy from a culture less inclined to performance than the African children in the class who appeared to be more natural storytellers, we see this as a moment to savor” (Balfour, 2015, p.107). Using Applied Theatre in an integration context or when working with refugees, it’s important to acknowledge all participants as single people with various characteristics that are separate from the culture or place they come from.

Researches wanted to avert from the realities of the children since the researchers projected that many of the children had had bad experiences during the journey to Australia. During one of the Process Drama plots involving an island civilization whose food source disappears, the researchers grew apprehensive since they believed, “it was coming too close to their lived realities − with people fleeing their homes to seek a new life because of terrible danger” (Balfour, 2015, p. 105). The children eagerly requested to act out the variable reasons why the people on the “Island of Plenty Fish” would flee and how they did so.  Since one of the principles that the researchers were basing their studies was to empower the students and establish pedagogical applications, they complied. “All our best efforts at distancing had brought us here. The children were enjoying the exploration of these people’s fate, with the connections made apparently being ours −  not theirs,” the researchers stated (Balfour, 2015, p. 105).  This is a general and crucial reminder for researchers or anyone practicing Process Drama in an immigration context, to not hold any preconceived notions of potential connections or consequences that will be drawn from scenarios in the drama. This could limit the creativity or enthusiasm of the children.

The researchers found they “had been too concerned with distancing, being extremely careful in selecting material that would ensure that the children were not adversely affected or even traumatized” (Balfour, 2015, p. 116). The researchers should have put more faith into the form and the use of a fictional context since all types of ideas can be explored by participants using genuine sympathy and empathy in a safe space but which also uses (Balfour, 2015).

Depending on the setting of the Process Drama, in this specific case, there was a high level of importance of the partnership between the Process Drama researchers and the school and primary classroom teacher. Since the researchers were only able to come into the classroom twice a week for two hours, there were often gaps of time in which children could forget their role, or the plot points of the drama. However, these particular researchers noted that their school facilitator did tremendous work during these gaps to reiterate concepts previously explored in the drama or referencing of the setting or characters throughout the routine curriculum lessons (Balfour, 2015, p. 116). In other instances of Process Drama use with newly arrived migrants, the practitioners may not be quite so fortunate.

Finally, and most importantly, the use of Process Drama raises questions of sustainability and how to work with the issues, topics and discussion left behind. In public school setting, curriculum constraints may make it difficult to fit this into a school year.  In addition, some teachers may not be comfortable in using this pedagogical approach, although they see the benefits that it brings. Reluctances were evident to the researchers since they were eager to observe and participate from the EDGES of the class but “expressed a lack of confidence in their skills of being able to teach in this way” (Balfour, 2015, p. 201).


Throughout this study, I aimed to examine a case study that had utilized Process Drama as a mechanism for integration, settlement and resilience of newly arrived migrant and refugee children in an eastern Australian societal context. I complemented this case study with additional research on the topic of integration and theatrical therapy practices to determine how Process Drama was best used for these aims and what potential critiques or drawback may arise.

Various limitations were present in my study, such as lack of direct access to the setting of the case study as well as accessibility to interview the researchers involved due to Norwegian research ethics restrictions. The ability of the researchers in the case study to engage effectively with the participants was also limited by time and nature of the project, therefore the insights gained from this, while albeit partial, hint towards a further practice and possibility for work in the future. However, I do believe that this research gives an overall impression of how Process Drama can be used for refugee integration and settlement approaches in a new community for both the newly arrived persons and host community inhabitants. Due to the lack of comprehensibility of this study, many questions arose that remain unanswered, such as: how much do the workshops influence the well-being of these participants and their adjustment into the society? How can schools realistically incorporate this type of applied theater to their curriculum and school year while not segregating refugees and newly arrived migrants?

However, the main finding by various researchers remains and was confirmed in this study; the first two years of settlement are “critical in constructing successful long-term transitions into a new culture” (Balfour, 2015, p. 194) and addressing the “here and now needs” of the newly arrived individuals is critical to their future well-being in their new society.


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