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College of Social Work

Refugee and Immigrant Studies: Integrating Research, Teaching and Service

Oct. 8, 2018
By Chris Woodley,

Research by Assistant Professors Breanne Grace and Benjamin Roth is gathering wide attention. The two published an article entitled, "The Violence of Uncertainty – Undermining Immigrant and Refugee Health in the New England Journal of Medicine in September. Roth, who has conducted research on the impact of DACA on undocumented youth, recently was awarded funding by the Spencer Foundation for a study on promoting education equity for immigrant students through school social work.

Grace illustrates themes and concepts from her research in MSW courses on refugees and forced migration and immigration policy. Her course entitled, “Refuge and Refugees,” is offered in the university's Honors College, further extending the reach of her scholarship. Roth also teaches an MSW course on immigration policy.

Grace and Roth's scholarship is also reflected in service. Earlier this year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) invited Grace speak on durable solutions to long-term displacement at the UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. In concert with Lutheran Services Carolinas, which houses 5-10 separated immigrant children, the college raised over $3,000 from its alumni and co-sponsored a fund raiser with a local pub to fly children to be reunited with families of sponsors in other states.

Grace and Roth investigated how personal, social and institutional uncertainty and instability causes fear for basic daily interactions of immigrants and refugees in their article, which was published in the Sept. 6, 2018 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine.    

“The uncertainty has existed for a very long time,” said Grace. “For immigrants without status there has always been a degree of uncertainty and social unrest that has slowly grown worse over time. Developing our concept of violence of uncertainty drew on all of our research and experience in refugee and immigrant communities and the understanding of current policies.”

“The situation is worse now because several years ago we were in the field with unaccompanied kids and while we weren’t using the term, ‘violence of uncertainty,’ we were troubled over their uncertain paths,” added Roth. “Now with the changes in policy, elevated enforcement and executive orders to deport or prioritize for deportation anyone who is undocumented, these factors have made the uncertainty that we highlighted several years ago even more acute.”

Earlier this year, the UNHCR invited Grace to present her work at their headquarters and use their official archive for her research, which focused on durable solutions to long-term displacement.

“I gave a 45-minute briefing on my research, specific policy outcomes and an advisement for how the UNHCR might design future regional policy based on my data, and how it can be applied to their programs,” said Grace. “The goal of my research is to understand how refuges pursue rights, and the obstacles and barriers they face, so the UN and governments can better design policies for refugees to access their rights."

Grace is also developing a project on state-sponsored torture and how it affects refugees’ ability to engage themselves in the resettlement process and the broader effects of impacting people’s ability to navigate in social spaces. But she also has taken her research and brought it into her classroom. 

“I teach a class on refugees and forced migration and from my experience working in refugee camps and resettlements, I tie in themes and concepts that we are covering in class and illustrate them with my research,” said Grace. “For example, I skyped with a colleague at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, who I got to know and who also works on refugee issues. Our classes can talk comparatively about how refugees are dealt with by the government in each country’s context.”

Roth has an extensive research background on immigrant youth and will begin a Spencer Foundation Small Research Grant-funded study on understanding strategies and approaches used by school social workers who are most effectively working to advocate for immigrant youth in educational settings. 

"From what my collaborators and I know in literature and have seen in our own work is that school social workers may be blind to some of the unique needs of immigrant youth," said Roth. "This study relates to the type of research I do with immigrant youth, especially those who face barriers to educational attainment, social inclusion and other outcomes that society has expressed concerns."

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