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Adolescent war refugees teach ‘an amazing and unforgettable lesson on humanity’

John’s first few days on the North American continent were spent getting to know his father once again. Megan was most surprised by the amount of traffic lights, while Sam was occupied with finding a job.

They never met each other, and their stories become noticeably different the more time they spend in the United States and Canada.  But for these three refugees—and a handful of others fortunate enough to escape their war-torn homelands—a childhood of trauma and oppression is a tie that will forever bind them together.

Their former lives, and their ability to adjust to society without such deadly civil strife, are of great interest to counseling psychology doctoral student Arlette Joëlle Ngoubene-Atioky. What started as a practicum assignment has evolved into a line of research into the coping strategies and life struggles of adolescents from the world’s most war-stricken environments.

“A paucity of research on refugees exists on this subject,” says Ngoubene, who ultimately hopes to see counseling psychology play a more integral role in the provision of refugee mental health services.  That goal is the result of an exhaustive look into adolescent war refugees and their assimilation in the United States and Canada.

To date, the College of Education doctoral student has investigated the offerings and operations of 124 refugee agencies in both the Northeast United States and the Vancouver, Canada metropolitan area. She’s also interviewed a range of war refugees from places such as Sierra Leone, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo, seeking to learn more about their life experiences in their native lands and new homes.

Surprising resilience

Her work continues, but findings reveal that most refugee agencies offer an average of five types of resources to refugees: educational services, case management, basic needs assistance, employment assistance, and social activities and outreach services. The rate at which they are accepted is a different matter and often depends upon a refugee’s past experiences.

“Refugees who experienced a higher-level nature of exposure to war reported more war-related experiences than other participating refugees,” Ngoubene says. “High-level-war-exposure refugees also shared their perspectives on their school performance and noted few friendships with their host country’s native residents.

“The need and expectation for academic excellence and professional success is indeed more discernible in high-level, war-exposure adolescent war refugees than in lower-level war adolescent war refugees. High-level, war-exposure refugees may view such success as a form of salvation of their past experiences.”

According to the United Nations Children Fund, there were more than 10.5 million war refugees in the world in 2005. Seven years later, that number has only increased. Reuters News Service reported this week that an escalating crisis in Sudan may give rise to war 500,000 refugees in the next few months alone.

The United States has long been a destination for refugees and asylum seekers, nearly 80 percent of who are women and children. More than 125,000 sought refuge in the United States in 2010.

Ngoubene hopes to develop a series of research-based measures that do a better job of evaluating how well refugees adapt to their new environments, and would also like to see an international consortium of refugee agencies that promotes ideas and dialogue between partnering agencies.

“I can say that I was truly surprised by the resilience of the participants of the study,” Ngoubene says. “They taught me an amazing and unforgettable lesson on humanity and life in general.”

Story by Tom Yencho

Posted on Wednesday, February 29, 2012

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