Initiative Coordinates Research, Education, Training to Improve the Lives of Displaced People Around the World

Global; Research; Social Work; Students

Photo courtesy of Sebastian Rich

At age 26, Meena Safi had never lived away from home or been outside Afghanistan when the Taliban took control of her nation in 2021. Meena had been working with American journalists and non-profits, and so felt at risk, particularly as a woman. Rejecting the advice of relatives to “just get married,” she fled to a refugee camp in Spain. Nine months later, she came to the U.S. with a scholarship to study at the Brown School.

Meena Safi

Meena, MSW ’24, is now preparing to work with other Afghan refugees in St. Louis as part of the Initiative for Social Work and Forced Migration, a nationwide hub for social workers who want to work with refugees.

“That scholarship saved my future,” she said.

The Initiative is based at the Brown School and led by Mitra Naseh, an assistant professor who helped found the effort in 2019 as a doctoral student. “This initiative is important in creating a platform for social work to be more involved in research on forced migration,” she said. “A very limited number of universities offer these opportunities to social work students.” The initiative now includes nearly 200 members in the U.S. and other countries who are working with forcibly displaced people, a burgeoning crisis that reached 103 million last year, the highest number on record since World War II.

Naseh hopes to expand her small team to attract students and eventually create a certificate program as well as to highlight the work and research other initiative’s members, who meet annually at the conference of the Society for Social Work and Research.

Mitra Naseh

“Most refugees come from multiple traumatic experiences, such as war, torture and other violence,” Naseh said. She said she is applying this spring for additional funding for the research on the economic integration of resettled Afghans. The pilot study aims to explore the economic integration of newly resettled Afghans in St. Louis and Portland, OR. Naseh is working with a group of five graduate students, including Meena, to see how different aspects of economic integration have been measured in the past to help design the study’s survey questions for immigrants. The study is aimed at developing a questionnaire to assess the economic progress of refugees, translate it to Pashto and Dari languages, then conduct interviews with 10-15 Afghans to see if the tool makes sense to them. The developed questionnaire will be piloted among 400 Afghans in St. Louis and in Portland.

The Initiative’s other current projects include:

  • A study exploring the impact of migration integration policy among highly educated immigrants in the U.S.
  • A systematic review of the literature exploring the impacts of forced family separation, fear of family separation, and family separation by constrained choices as the result of migration policies in the U.S. on the mental health of impacted children and their caregivers.
  • A study in collaboration with the Boğaziçi University to develop a protocol for the virtual delivery of a transdiagnostic mental health intervention among Afghan refugees and asylum seekers in Turkey.
  • A pilot study on the protecting role of ethnic networks during COVID-19 among Afghan refugees in St. Louis.
  • A follow-up study to Naseh’s dissertation on factors associated with the economic integration of refugee households in the U.S. A part of the results of this ongoing study was recently published by the British Journal of Social Work.
Mustafa Rfat

Another student working on Initiative projects is Mustafa Rfat, a second-year PhD student in social work who came to the U.S. in 2011 as a refugee from Iraq. A student living with a disability, Rfat’s area of interest is refugees with disabilities and the challenges they encounter. “It’s a professional interest, but it’s a life experience for me as well,” he said, noting that because he speaks both Arabic and Turkish, he was able to hear other stories of refugees with disabilities.

“When disabled refugees settle in the U.S., they often come with a lot of health needs,” he said. Policies for refugees to be self-reliant within three months isolate those who need extra support. “When I came, the agency that worked with me was confused about how to help me,” he said. “People don’t know how to deal with disabilities and sometimes don’t see the value of refugees with disabilities. When people with disabilities get the right resources, they are highly successful in what they do. My research is looking at how we can best help provide resources they need to realize their potential.”

Meena noted that another professor at the Brown School, Jean-Francois Trani, worked with her in Afghanistan and sponsored her application for a visa. She applied to come to the Brown School while in the Spanish refugee camp, a difficult time. “I had no hope, I’d lost my job, my home, I had nothing but a passport taped to my body,” she said. At the Brown School, she’s faced challenges such as studying in English for the first time and adapting to different studying methods than are used in Afghanistan. “I love the diversity at the Brown School,” she said, noting the school’s variety of ethnicity and religions among faculty and students. “It’s been amazing.”

She’s especially looking forward to connecting with Afghan women who have resettled in St. Louis and share many of the challenges she faced. “I will tell them that even if you lose everything, there is hope,” she said. “You need to trust your abilities. You start from nothing here.”