ASU supporting refugee community with research, programming

Silhouettes of a mother and child holding hands.

An Arizona State University professor is researching how women rebuild their social support networks after resettling in the U.S. as refugees.

Karin Wachter, associate professor in the School of Social Work at ASU, is working on several research projects related to people who flee their home countries due to armed conflict and seek safe haven in the U.S.

She presented her research at a recent conference held at ASU titled “Reimagining Refugee Services in the United States” that highlighted several initiatives to help refugees. The conference was co-hosted by ASU and Switchboard and funded by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Wachter worked as a practitioner in the field of international humanitarian assistance for more than 10 years before starting her academic career. In her doctoral program, Wachter conducted research with Congolese women who resettled in the U.S. as refugees.

“What became clear was that with resettlement, women experienced a dramatic and sudden loss of social support, and that’s not necessarily what the refugee resettlement program is set up to address,” said Wachter, who is the director of the Office of Refugee Health in the Southwest Interdisciplinary Research Center at ASU and a Harry Frank Guggenheim Distinguished Scholar.

Her research explains the ways in which war, forced displacement and resettlement shape different types of support available to women through their personal networks. She is now collaborating with colleaguesHer colleagues are Roseanne Schuster, assistant research scientist in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at ASU, Godfred Boateng of York University, Crista Johnson-Agbakwu at University of Massachusetts, Aline Indatwa and Frediane Ndikumana Nzosaba. to develop a social support scale tailored to the needs and lived experiences of women following resettlement.

“How people experience the loss of social support as result of war, forced displacement and resettlement is gendered and shaped by structural dynamics, as well as culture and context,” she said. Wachter also conducts research on intimate partner violence in forced migration and resettlement.

Among the other topics discussed at the two-day conference was how ASU and other universities have worked to help refugee students, according to Pam DeLargy, professor of practice in the School of Politics and Global Studies and executive director of the Education for Humanity refugee initiative at ASU.

Refugee students may have unique needs that differ from other international students, she said.

“They are in a peculiar situation in terms of everything — immigration status and life experiences. Many have been separated from their schooling abruptly. Many have experienced different kinds of trauma, being involved in conflict, seeing conflict and having dramatic family separations,” she said.

DeLargy said that ASU realized that while the young women who came here after fleeing Afghanistan in 2021 are doing well, many are also working full time and sometimes have two jobs because they have become the sole financial support for their families back in Afghanistan.

“They’ve gone from being a daughter in a family, with that kind of status and responsibility, to being the head of the household and responsible financially for the family in many cases,” DeLargy said. Many universities that are hosting Afghan refugees have had to develop specific supports for the students’ mental and physical health, along with training for faculty on trauma-informed instruction.

Also at the conference, participants learned about the Welcome Corps on Campus, a new federal initiative that enables universities to play a leading role in resettling refugee students. Welcome Corps on Campus will provide a pathway to citizenship for carefully selected refugee students, who must be over 20 and speak English. ASU will likely welcome one or two students in the program in fall 2024, DeLargy said.

Typically, refugees get help from official resettlement agencies, which get funds from the government, but there’s a desire to get more private involvement in resettlement, she said.

“In the Canadian model, communities can come together and pool funds and say they will sponsor a family or individual and help them with housing or getting a job or a driver’s license,” she said.

“So the Welcome Corps on Campus is similar. A number of people on a particular campus will make a commitment to help a new refugee student settle into life in the U.S. The university will provide tuition support but the community must find funds for housing and clothing. It’s a nice model because it’s a commitment on behalf of the university but also ensures that the student will have a set of dedicated people they can depend on,” she said.

DeLargy said the national conference was a valuable way to show people that Arizona is welcoming to refugees.

“Arizona, over the decades, has shown strong support for refugee resettlement. We were able to highlight this bipartisan support and the ways that you can depoliticize this issue,” she said.