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The SALaMA Project: Interventions to reduce inequality for refugee students

Written by Niamh Simmons, BSc, MD candidate at University College Dublin, Ireland and a Summer Pediatric Research in Global Health Translation (SPRIGHT) Scholar in the 2022 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

As part of the Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program – Public & Global Health Track seminar series, I was afforded the opportunity on July 26 to attend an online presentation by Ilana Seff, DrPH,  a research assistant professor at the Brown School at WashU and co-investigator on several current projects. Seff’s research agenda focuses on improving the lives of vulnerable and marginalized populations across the globe using evidence-based solutions, which she believes is achieved by employing a mixed-methods approach to evaluate and inform interventions.

Seff presented on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 10 which aims to reduce inequalities within and among countries. The UN has highlighted 10 targets and 11 indicators for SDG 10. While there has been positive progress for SDG 10 since these goals were adopted in 2015, there have also been some setbacks in more recent times, such as the first increase in between-country income equality in a generation of 1.2%, and a 44% increase in the number of refugees living outside of their country of origin between 2015 and 2021.

SDG 10 statistics highlighted on the UN’s website

Seff presented on the mental health and well-being of refugee students from the Middle East and North African regions in the U.S., and outlined the three relevant UN targets that the research in this area focuses on – 1) to promote income growth for the bottom 40% of the population, 2) to improve equal opportunity and reduce discrimination, and 3) to empower and promote the social, economic, and political inclusion of all. Seff explained the life events that refugees often experience, such as pre-migration, breakdown of social structure, multi-dimensional poverty, exposure to conflict and violence and loss of loved ones. During the migration process, there is social and cultural displacement, separation from loved ones, continuing multidimensional poverty and there are some reports of exposure to violence and discrimination. Post-migration, social and cultural displacement and poverty continue, and refugee students face the daunting task of reintegrating into a new educational system, all of which can affect their mental health and psychosocial outcomes.

After Seff apprised the context surrounding this issue, she discussed the SALaMA project in great detail. Her work within the SALaMA project investigates if mental health and well-being in schoolchildren differs between refugee students and non-refugee students in the Arab enclave in the Detroit Metropolitan Area. The results of this study have suggested that there has been no difference in mental health or psychosocial outcomes between the two student groups. Seff suggested a number of reasons as to why this has occurred, such as the shared Arab heritage and strong social networks between these groups, which could act as a protective factor for refugee students that enables them to seek culturally appropriate mental health and language supports. Interestingly enough, girls have fared better than boys, which may have occurred because refugee boys often face increased responsibilities from their families. The results have shown that feelings of hope and belonging have been positively correlated with resilience and negatively associated with suicide ideation. In addition, unsurprisingly, stressful life events have been negatively correlated with resilience and positively correlated with suicide ideation.

The SALaMA project sheds great insight into factors which effect the mental health and psychosocial outcomes of refugee students. Based on these results, Seff is working on piloting interventions, such as offering peer support groups to refugee students, that could potentially help to achieve the goals of SDG 10.