Study of Migrant Teens Points to Need for Support in Challenging Times and Highlights Resilience

Faculty; Global; Research

Adolescence is tough for many teens, but it can be especially difficult for those who resettle to an unfamiliar country, where migration experiences and daily stressors often compound the challenges that can affect health and well-being into adulthood. A team of researchers at the Brown School has been studying those unique challenges in adolescents who have been resettled from the Middle East and North Africa, and the important role that schools can play in fostering their resilience and aiding their adjustment to a new homeland.

The study used surveys, focus groups, and other participatory methods with resettled teens to capture their experiences and solicit their feedback. While students born outside of the US generally reported similar outcomes of mental health compared to their U.S.-born peers, there were some notable exceptions, including a higher likelihood of suicide ideation. Hope and school belonging were identified as important factors, not only to protect students whose families are from the Middle East, but for all students.

Recent violence in the Middle East has added urgency to the study’s findings and underscored the importance of support during resettlement, according to Lindsay Stark, professor at the Brown School and principal investigator of the five-year Study of Adolescent Lives after Migration to America (SALaMA).

“Recognizing the cascading impact of the events unfolding in Israel and Gaza, along with the potential surge in anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, and anti-Semitic sentiment nationwide, the importance of actively cultivating a sense of belonging and community is particularly urgent,” said Stark.

The study, funded by the Qatar Foundation International (QFI), has been conducted in close partnership with school districts and local refugee resettlement agencies around the U.S.  It assesses the mental health and psychosocial well-being of resettled high school students in Texas, Illinois, Michigan, and Virginia, with complementary research underway in Ireland. Identifying sources of daily stress in newcomer students’ lives — as well as corresponding support mechanisms — is producing best practices by schools, communities, and families to serve newcomer students and is being used by QFI and others to design future programming.

“This study has been a great example of meaningful partnership,” says Stark. Jeremy Aldrich, the director of enrichment programs at Harrisonburg City Public Schools, agreed. “Over the years of doing the study, the relationship with the researcher team was inclusive and participatory,” he told the Harrisonburg (VA) Daily News-Record. “The process was collaborative, with ongoing feedback and contextualization of the study result …It’s affirmed that hope and school belonging are really important factors to protect the mental health and well-being of not just students whose families are from the Middle East, but all students.”

In addition to the valuable partnerships with school partners and community-based organizations, the Washington University research team includes Ilana Seff, co-PI and Research Assistant Professor at the Brown School; Alli Gillespie, Senior Research Manager; Najat Qushua, Data Analyst; and Dani Sarraf, former Program Manager and current graduate student.

Stark presenting at conference. (Photo courtesy of Alli Gillespie)

Despite challenges such as mental health stigma and resource constraints, Seff emphasizes the need to expand access to culturally responsive services and programming. Researchers are advocating for schools to show newcomers they’re valued by strengthening English language programming and peer support and implementing trauma-informed approaches, keeping in mind the challenges associated with displacement and acculturation that many of the teens’ experience.  “We want to allow students to share their other identities with fellow students and let them be their whole selves,” she added.

Stark and other members of the research team presented their findings Oct. 27 at a conference of the Comparative and International Education Society in Monterey, CA. School partners also attended the conference, sharing the practical ways that SALaMA findings focused on belonging, hope, and resilience among students has impacted their approach to programming and policies.

Student feedback reflected several ways to better support resettled students, including:

  • More English-language support.
  • Clear communication of school rules and social norms.
  • Peer support.
  • Teacher patience.
  • The recognition that resettled students bring assets to school communities, as well as challenges.

In addition to the study’s website, more information about the research can be found at the project’s virtual galleries and the Humans of SALaMA Instagram page, which shares perspectives of the study participants.