At the Muslim Mental Health Conference’s refugee panel hosted at the East Lansing Marriott on April 13-14, a group of specialist presented research and humanitarian projects aimed at helping reduce psychological distress for refugees.
They formed a dialogue with religious personnel and conference attendees in hopes of determining the best path forward for ensuring the mental well-being of those displaced from their home countries.
A 2015 United Nations study found that 65.3 million people worldwide were forced to flee their home countries in that year alone.
The current refugee crisis has created a population of refugees who have had to face the psychological stresses of fleeing one’s home country: the threat of physical harm, the loss of loved ones, a community, and rejection by citizens in their new home.
One panelist was Dr. Rohan Jeremiah, a graduate of MSU and current professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Jeremiah and his team presented their research on two groups of refugee men in the Chicago area. They studied a group of Rohingya refugees, who recently came to the United States from Myanmar, and Somali refugees, who have been in the country for a decade or more.
The study investigated the largest stressors on these refugee groups, and it showed the Somali refugees are able to deal with more complex issues since they have been in the country longer.
“The Somali refugees, and those who’ve stayed longer are dealing with issues of profiling, both from the standpoint of racial, ethnic … the Somalis are talking about those issues as opposed to what the Rohingyas, they really aren’t at that stage,” Jeremiah said.
One notable finding was the use of social media actually led to more distress for some refugees. Jeremiah said social media is a net positive for refugees, who use it as the only way to communicate with their loved ones back home. However, he said the increased ability to see the struggles of family members and countrymen can lead to increased stress for refugees.
“A lot of these young men, they talk about sitting at home, late at night, worrying about their families, and they jump on Facebook or Youtube and see all these stories, and they get really agitated,” Jeremiah said. “They see these things, and there’s really nothing they can do, besides provide comfort via telephone or email but going back to help is not an option for them.”
Jeremiah has the long-term research goal of finding ways to reach out to male refugees and understanding the unique pressures they face. He said there is far less research on male refugees than on women and children.
Another panelist was Dr. Steve Olweean, a Ph.D.
psychologist who has been working in Jordan with his organizations, the Common Bond Institute and the International Humanistic Psychology Association, since the 1990s. Olweean, as a social psychologist, noted the problems created by the newly developed refugee communities in Jordan.
Olweean has worked not only to help refugees cope with psychological stress in the short term, but also to create an infrastructure for long-term assistance. His organization has worked to train members of the refugee community to support one another, and they physically moved into the area in 2011.
Eventually, Olweean hopes the infrastructure he sets up will become self-supporting so that his organization no longer needs to be present in the area.
“The idea is…to train them to take over, to operate the services and to become the trainers,” Olweean
said. “And then we operate more as a service to be a development tool or to funnel even more financial resources towards them.”
One area where Olweean said refugees in Jordan struggle is in education. They are not allowed to attend school with Jordanian children, so it is difficult for them to receive education at all.
Lilah Khoja, a Master’s of Public Health candidate at the University of Michigan who attended the conference, voiced her disagreement with Olweean on refugee education based on her experience working with refugee children through the Karam Foundation.
“I’ve seen the improvement in how the children themselves talk about, like, their own personal selves, how their parents talk about them, and how their teachers talk about them,” Khoja said. “We’ve had children say, I didn’t know what next year would look like for me be. Now, it’s going to be me in school.”
Olweean said his organization is attempting to obtain UNESCO funding to help educate more young refugees, but it is often difficult to find the resources to provide the kind of education necessary for a large population of refugees.
“You’re doing whatever you can with what you have,” Olweean said. “If I wait another five years for something that allows a more traditional form of education these kids are going to be 20 years old. To have them go back to 7th grade to try to catch up, even in the United States, is that feasible to expect of someone?”