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Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences

Department of Psychology

Psychology Matters

Diversity Matters

mcgrathBy Elly Barrow
Graduate Student, Developmental Psychology



How does variation in refugee families' experiences prior to their resettlement impact later mental health and integration? Are there culturally distinct strategies that caregivers use to protect their children from the psychological stress and trauma of the refugee experience? Once resettled, how do refugees promote resilience in their children after years of upheaval, chaos, physical hardship, and uncertainty?

These questions are central to a new project in the Child Health and Development lab, in partnership with the Traumatic Stress Studies Group, investigating resettled Syrian and Iraqi refugee families in the Denver area. As conflict intensifies in the Middle East, refugee populations from this region continue to grow in relevance and have largely spurred the recent global refugee crisis. Refugees are often exposed to war, trauma, and exploitation, are displaced and forced to migrate, and struggle to survive in other countries prior to their resettlement. After arriving in the United States, families are faced with stressors associated with navigating a new environment, language, and culture. Despite these adversities and challenges, most refugees do eventually, successfully integrate and become meaningful contributors to their host communities. Understanding this incredible resilience after such extraordinary stress-exposure is the focus of this new project.

While the unique experiences of refugee families merit careful investigation, approaching such sensitive topics in vulnerable cross-cultural groups at risk for exploitation requires special considerations. For instance, it is important to consider how our role as institution-based researchers may be perceived by groups who have historically been oppressed or betrayed by official institutions. Further, cultural differences may dictate the level of personal information participants are willing to share and language barriers may lead to misinterpretation of psychological concepts and expressions. To begin addressing these issues, our study will utilize mixed-methods, encompassing both qualitative assessment and quantitative analysis of caregiver-child physiological stress functioning and measurement of acculturation, mental health, coping and protective factors, and child behavioral health. We will conduct this investigation through a community-participatory framework, in which community partners and culturally-rooted navigators inform and influence the study design and recruit and engage participants from their respective communities.

Many professionals and volunteers demonstrate commitment and desire to aid newly arrived refugee families; yet, their ability to provide evidence-based interventions is stymied by low consensus on risk and protective factors across populations. Our aim is to contribute culturally grounded evidence toward risk and protective processes, strengthen the professional service provider community by disseminating our findings in various community-forums, inform early preventative support services within resettlement agencies, and contribute to advocacy efforts.