News, On Campus

BCSSW Research Team Works to Provide Aid for Afghan Refugees Resettled in the U.S.

The Boston College School of Social Work’s (BCSSW) Research Program on Children and Adversity (RPCA) will collaborate with the University of Illinois at Chicago for a project that aims to provide mental health and familial support for Afghan refugees resettled in the United States, according to BC News. 

“Afghan families and communities demonstrate a tremendous amount of strength which we hope to illuminate,” Theresa Betancourt, BCSSW Salem Professor in Global Practice and head of the program, said in the release. “We also want to help ensure that evidence-based services are available to help promote child and family mental health with much more of a prevention focus.”

Betancourt will work alongside Mary Bunn, professor of psychiatry and director of the UIC Global Mental Health Research and Training Program, as they research the acute trauma developed in adolescents after living through a war and migrating to the United States. According to the release, the project is funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Farhad Sharifi, the program adviser, and Euijin Jung, a postdoctoral research fellow for the RCPA, said the SSW is currently piloting its program in small batches, the first of which is taking place in Maine and has 30 Afghan families participating.

“All the work that we are doing is truly meant to support Afghan families, Afghan families mental health, and their family communication,” Jung said.

According to Sharifi, while the program has many components, one primary goal is to work with every member of a family to find ways to protect the mental health of Afghan children.

“Our target group eligible for the program are those families who have 7- to 17-year-old school-going kids,” Sharifi said. 

While the target demographic of the program is families with school-age children, Sharifi said there is still variation among the families the RPCA provides services for.

“The range is different,” Sharifi said. “We have single parents, we have only children, we have, of course, extended families. In our program, we have families with six to seven children.”

Jung said when Afghan families had to evacuate following the Taliban’s return to power in 2021, the United States was not equipped to provide asylum for everyone at once, resulting in the temporary placement of refugees in military bases across the country. 

“As the first step [of our program], … we visited military bases and did some qualitative interviews with [refugees] to understand their strengths, challenges, and service needs,” Jung said.

This project consists of multiple phases, according to Jung, one of which is understanding the strengths, weaknesses, and needs of the refugees, as every family comes in with a different set of life experiences.

“We talk about family strengths and goals, identifying hopes and dreams of the families,” Jung said. “So we approach this from a strength perspective, not from the deficit, we want to help families identify their own strengths and goals.”

Jung said another important step in the program is educating families about the U.S. education system and how they can get their children into school.

“We talk a lot about the U.S. education system,” Jung said. “Families are new in this country, they are very curious to learn about the U.S. education system … for example, how they can talk to their children’s teachers, or how summer school can be done”.

Moving forward, Sharifi said the program hopes to take the lessons researchers learned from the first pilot and apply the program to other states.

“We already have an agreement with the state of Michigan and we are going to implement it through three research agencies [in Michigan], so that is the next step,” Sharifi said.

March 26, 2023