RIOT: Occupational Therapy Information

Role of Occupational Therapy for Refugees & Immigrants


Occupational therapy for refugees and immigrants is a re-emerging field and goes back to the roots of occupational therapy practice. Occupational therapists recognize that health is supported and maintained best when the individual is able to engage and participate in the daily activities that are most meaningful to them. These meaningful tasks are categorized as the person’s everyday activities that they need to do, have to do, or want to do in the home, school, workplace, or community (Estrany et al. 2021). Utilizing therapeutic use of everyday activities (occupations), occupational therapists strive to improve physical, emotional, or mental health during their resettlement process. 


Core Occupations

  • Activities of daily living (ADLs)
    • Bathing/Showering
    • Toileting
    • Dressing
    • Feeding
    • Personal hygiene (brushing hair and teeth, washing face)  
  • Instrumental ADLs (IADLs)
    • Care of others
    • Providing care and supervision to children
    • Driving
    • Meal Preparation & Clean up 
    • Grocery shopping
    • Doing laundry
  • Health Management 
    • Medication management (filing prescriptions, following dosage routine basis) 
    • Nutrition management (drinking enough water eating enough food)
    • Physical activity (exercising, weight lifting, daily walks) 
  • Rest and Sleep
    • Sleep preparation that prepare you for comfortable rest (meditation, prayer)
  • Education
    • Participating in classes, programs, or activities that provide structured learning in an area of interest 
    • Gaining formal education on an academic level 
  • Work
    • Searching for work opportunities
    • Advocating for yourself to gain these opportunities
    • Doing the best possible work you can do in your job
  • Play
    • Playing with toys, supplies, and equipment you show interest in 
  • Leisure
    • Identifying an interest or skill and balancing time to be able to have time for the things you like to do
  • Social Participation
    • Doing activities with members of your community 
    • Doing activities within your own family (meal time, game night)


Challenges & Barriers 

Refugees and Immigrants face a multitude of barriers impeding their ability to successfully acclimate to their new communities and get back to doing their everyday tasks. This can include providing group interventions addressing common current or potential challenges that they may face making their experience more unique. Common challenges that are experienced by displaced people include high levels of stress, anxiety, and worry. These things may lead to chronic pain and other physical conditions, which may interfere with one’s ability to participate in daily tasks. Although some members of this community may have actual diagnosis, some typical symptoms that may be experienced with or without an offical diagnosis are listed below.


Prevalent Mental Health Challenges/Barriers:

  1. Anxiety
  2. Stress
  3. Feelings of depression or sadness
  4. Feelings of worry
  5. Feeling overwhelmed
  6. Difficulty sleeping
  7. Loneliness 
  8. Self-harming behaviors or thoughts
  9. Fear of leaving your home
  10. Disinterest in activities that were once enjoyable


Typical Physical Conditions: 

  1. Chronic pain
  2. Muscle weakness
  3. Fatigue


What can Occupational Therapy do for: 


People who need servicesService Providers
  • Evaluate what the persons wants and needs to do 
  • Promote physical wellness by providing exercises to strengthen and restore movement
  • Improve mental health and well-being with emotional regulation strategies 
  • Increase participation in important life activities
  • Educate and train on how to do activities in nontraditonal or new ways with the use of adaptive devices 
    • Ex: modified cooking utensils
  • For those with difficulty walking/moving around
    • Canes and walkers
    • Wheelchairs
  • Teach skills that the person may have lost or needs to learn.
  • Communicate to the healthcare team what is meaningful to the client.
  • Identify supports and barriers to well-being, health, and participation. 
  • Advocate on the client’s behalf.
  • Collaboration and intervention planning with the health care team.
  • Care coordination 
  • Education and training of family members, caregivers, 
  • Identify correct referral services
    • Provision of mobility aids as able


Occupational Therapy Refugee & Immigrant Interventions

Occupational therapists aim to provide community-based occupational interventions in the following categories:


Social Participation

  • Connecting them to English classes whether online or in person within their area to address language barriers. 
  • Improving social isolation
  • Connecting members together to form communities 

Community mobility and engagement

  • Utilizing the public transportation system such as AC Transit buses and BART
  • Navigating the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) website to take the driver’s permit test
  • Access to relevant resources and events within their environment 


Home Establishment and Management

  • Education on new home appliances they might not be familiar with
  • Gaining items they need (ex: thrift shops/goodwill, diaper banks, etc.)

Health Management

  • Education on management of physical and mental health needs 

→ Benefits of engaging in mindfulness techniques such as daily prayer, meditation, writing in a journal, group therapy/support groups

→ Importance of exercising, going on daily walks, and eating healthy

  • Education and training on preventing fatigue, getting things done as quickly and efficiently as possible using the least amount of energy
  • Teaching strategies on managing pain 
  • Improving participation in mindfulness techniques 

Food Management

  • Locating nearby grocery stores
  • Locating nearby food banks
  • Training on using Cal-Fresh and WIC cards at the grocery store
  • Modified or adapted meal preparation 
  • Nutrition education

Work Participation

  • Education on how to search for employment opportunities
  • Training on developing a resume


Relevant Resources: 




American Occupational Therapy Association. (2020). Occupational therapy: Domain and 

process (4th ed.). American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 74(suppl. 2), 7412410010.

Estrany-Munar, M. F., Talavera-Valverde, M. Á., Souto-Gómez, A. I., Márquez-Álvarez, L. J., 

& Moruno-Miralles, P. (2021). The Effectiveness of Community Occupational Therapy Interventions: A Scoping Review. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(6), 3142.