Christina Khoury| PhD Candidate, Department for Migration and Globalization, Danube University Krems
Studies have shown that migrants who flee war and persecution in their home countries report high rates of pre-migration trauma and mental health problems (Stenmark et al, 2013). The traumatic events that refugees experience during their migratory journey, such as violence, housing and food insecurity, which makes them prone to psychological distress and mental health problems, are also well-documented in the literature (Shafer & Walsh, 2018; Giordano et al, 2019). Furthermore, scholars have underlined how post-migration challenges, such as socio-economic and cultural inequalities, significantly influence the health status and well-being of young refugees, in particular their mental health (Liamputtong & Kurban, 2018; Kohlenberger et al., 2018).
The findings of several of these studies also demonstrate that support and a positive social environment for establishing a sense of belonging of refugees to their new home is essential for their mental well-being. As Brun and Fàbos (2015) convincingly argue, refugees are not only displaced and “out of place” in a territorial sense when they resettle in a new country (separated from the physical place they call home), but also in a relational and emotional way. They also leave behind their social, economic and cultural realities to which they have strong social, psychological and emotional attachments (Brun & Fàbos, 2015). Following, “home-making” in terms of recovering and constructing a social context and sense of belonging to their new home country becomes key for their mental health and well-being.
Questions and purpose
Establishing social capital and a sense of belonging is especially important for the well-being and overall integration of the young refugees, whom often rely on social connections and community support to deal with the stress they go through upon arrival in a foreign country (Joyce & Liamputtong, 2017; Brough et al., 2003). In my paper, I aim to investigate this issue further, looking particularly at the link between feelings of belonging and the mental well-being of young Syrian refugees in their new settings in Austria, and the role various actors, such as the local government and the civil society, play in influencing this relationship.
By drawing on Ager & Strang’s conceptual framework on integration (2008) and Correa-Velez, Gifford & Barnett’s (2010) model on well-being, my paper will analyse the impact of key factors related to social contexts of family, own ethnic community, host community and broader society (social bonds, social links and social bridges), known as strongly associated with well-being outcomes among young refugees. The questions I set out to answer are: How does young Syrian refugees’ social integration into society affect their mental well-being? How does their mental well-being impact their social integration?
Refugee mental health overall, and mental health related issues of young refugees in particular, is an understudied area for various reasons. First, this lack of academic attention can partly be explained by the existing language barrier (Zipfel et al., 2019). While many young refugees in Europe have acquired a good knowledge of the host country language, it is crucial to communicate with them in their mother tongue to fully understand their concerns and to conduct meaningful research. As professional interpretation/translation services for this purpose requires a large research budget, it may not always be possible. Second, a cultural barrier also poses an obstacle to meaningful research in the field. Generally, there is a widespread stigma around mental health issues in the Middle East, which naturally makes Middle Eastern youth less receptive to discussing these issues (Mohammadzadeh et al 2020; Gearing et al, 2015). These challenges may, at least to some extent, explain why limited research has been conducted thus far concerning the mental well-being of young Syrian refugees in Europe, including in Austria.
Following, my overall aim is to contribute to filling this gap, by presenting the voices of young Syrians (between 18 and 29 years old, who have recently settled in Austria as refugees (between 2016 – 2019) on these issues. The hope is that these findings then can help inform better integration policy and practices conducive to young refugees’ mental wellbeing, both as regards enabling environments (such as living conditions) as well as specific measures of support in acute situations (such as psychological support).
My hypothesis drawing on previous research in the field is as follows: increased social capital and sense of belonging among young Syrian refugees in Austria have a positive impact on their mental well-being and in turn their overall integration into host societies. These domains are often referred to as key components and indicators for successful long-term integration of young refugees. Reversely, my negative expectation is the following: a lack of social capital and a sense of belonging among young Syrian refugees have a negative impact on their mental well-being and hinders their overall integration.
Naturally, the relationship between social participation and mental well-being may be bi-directional and mutually reinforcing to some extent. Therefore, I also expect to find that low levels of well-being among the young refugee cohort in this study reduces their ability to participate socially. For example, with depression, people tend to withdraw from their social environments, and then descend more deeply into depression, and vice versa.
The research paper will adopt mixed methods research design. Drawing on already existing data sets, data generated from the focus-group instrument will be used to corroborate and expand on previously collected data, and to help explain the survey’s findings (explanatory sequential). Other process would be an exploratory sequential design, where I will conduct focus groups and observe to provide context for survey data, plan and distribute surveys, carry out in-depth interviews with some of the participants (young refugees) as well as experts in the field. The results of the above methods will then be presented in the paper and integrated into the discussion section.