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Research coalition to examine the experiences of Syrian refugee children

Multidisciplinary group based at Dalhousie University plans to track subjects into adulthood to see what strategies lead to success.


In November 2015, Canada announced it would accept 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year, with more to follow in 2016. Thanks partially to the tragic images of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on the shore of the Mediterranean, Canadians overwhelmingly supported the new Liberal government’s plan and signed up to become sponsors.

Universities wanted to help, too, creating scholarships for refugees and sponsoring their own refugee families. The University of Toronto, Ryerson University and York University banded together under Lifeline Syria and raised $4 million to sponsor 15 families.

Along with this comes new research to address the Syrian experience, including projects at York and Wilfrid Laurier universities, among others. As well, the ongoing Pathways to Prosperity alliance, which studies and promotes the integration of immigrants and minorities in Canada, is now addressing the experience of Syrian refugees, too.

But, one of the most ambitious new Syrian-inspired projects seeks to understand the challenges and experiences specifically of refugee children – who make up 60 percent of the Syrian cohort – via a new group headquartered at Dalhousie University.

The Child and Youth Refugee Research Coalition (CYRRC) includes researchers from across the country, governments, service agencies, as well as a participating research group in Germany. “This mammoth intake of refugees just seemed to beg us to ask what kind of contribution we could make,” said Michael Ungar, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience at Dalhousie and is the lead researcher for the coalition. The group aims to discover which factors – everything from settlement services to education to family benefits – lead to success for refugee kids now and over the long term.

Syrian refugee children take part in a day camp in Toronto in July 2016 to help acclimatize them to Canadian life and prepare them for school. Photo by The Canadian Press/Chris Young.
Syrian refugee children take part in a day camp in Toronto in July 2016 to help acclimatize them to Canadian life and prepare them for school. Photo by The Canadian Press/Chris Young.

This group, the core of which includes about 25 academics, began as a series of conversations at Dalhousie in the late fall of 2015 led by Dr. Ungar and Martha Crago, vice-president, research, whose research interests lie in language acquisition. The university is home to the Children and Youth in Challenging Contexts (CYCC) Network, which includes researchers with experience studying refugee and immigrant children.

Dr. Crago hosted a dinner party that included Dr. Ungar and Patrick McGrath, who holds the Canadian Research Chair in Child Health at Dalhousie, and the idea for a national coalition was on the menu. The next day, dinner guests began contacting colleagues.

By December, the group had established a core team and planned a meeting for January. “We wanted to get working on this ASAP,” said Dr. Ungar. “We’re talking about kids. We don’t want to lose this generation.”

(Around this time, Dr. Crago called her contacts at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to suggest rapid response funding for refugee research. The agency rallied around the idea and set a June 2016 deadline, with payouts a month later, for 25 grants of $25,000. Some researchers in the Dalhousie-based group later secured funding through this program.)

A plan to study four aspects of the child refugee experience

The January meeting established the name and a plan to study four aspects of the child refugee experience: language and literacy; social integration; mental and physical wellbeing; and economics. With a deadline only three weeks away, the group decided to submit a letter of intent for a SSHRC $2.5-million partnership grant. Dr. Ungar tackled the application while others pooled money and solicited letters of support. The LOI made it through the first round, receiving $20,000 to prepare a final proposal, which was submitted on November 10. The coalition will know in March if it gets the full grant.

Dr. Crago, meanwhile, traveled to Germany this past February on Dalhousie business. She stopped in on a few colleagues and at the Canadian embassy in Berlin to talk about refugee research, knowing that the country had taken in about 300,000 Syrians in 2015. Her casual meetings led to contacts with representatives from various Leibniz Institutes and German universities.

That led to a bilateral meeting in June in Berlin and another in Ottawa in September. The department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, and Statistics Canada, both supported these meetings and sent representatives. By the fall, an official memorandum of understanding with Leibniz to coordinate research was in place.

Just days before signing that agreement in Berlin on September 19, Dr. Crago – along with Howard Ramos, a professor of sociology at Dalhousie (who recently assessed the success of a Halifax-based immigrant settlement program and has done research on behalf of the Treasury Board of Canada), and Lori Wilkinson from the University of Manitoba – attended the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants. Dr. Crago said those whirlwind few days led to a deeper understanding of the issues and made her increasingly optimistic about the coalition’s potential impact. “It felt like it was meant to happen.”

Dr. Wilkinson, a professor of sociology, has decades of experience studying refugees and immigrants and how they integrate socially. Her research will synch with the work of people such as Johanne Paradis, professor of linguistics at the University of Alberta. Dr. Paradis studies children’s language acquisition, including second language acquisition.

“The interdisciplinary nature of this project is very attractive”

The interdisciplinary nature of the coalition should lead to rich results, said Dr. Paradis. “We know that mental health and economics matter to education success and language learning, but we never really measure it,” she said. “I’m in this little language world and the interdisciplinary nature of this project is very attractive.”

The hope is for the coalition to run large scale surveys – ideally longitudinal surveys to track how kids do into adulthood – and do qualitative interviews as well. Integration with the Leibniz Educational Research Network and German university researchers will entail sharing survey and interview questions as well as data. Dr. Wilkinson says new research methods such as photovoice, where kids are given cameras to document their lives, could offer unique insights and overcome language barriers. All these approaches will be costly, she says, with the added expense of translators at times.

The government and service provider groups that are also coalition members will help secure research cohorts. Most importantly, they will have full access to research results. “Part of this network is not just keeping information as researchers but to translate it for communities and partners,” said Dr. Ramos.

Already, several researchers have landed SSHRC rapid response funding, and have leveraged other grants to help pay for meetings, start projects and modify existing ones so results can feed into the collective. Coalition members are also taking stock of existing data. “We need to know what’s out there, what’s worked and what hasn’t worked,” said Dr. Ramos. “We have a tendency to have research amnesia.”

By this spring, members hope to launch coalition-specific studies. In March, the group will know its budget, which will impact scale. Either way, the mandate stays the same. “We have the infrastructure to really move something forward,” said Dr. Ungar. “If we can prove that works and what doesn’t, maybe the next time we’ll be that much more ready to say we know how to do this right.”

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