Abstract: Refugee-Led Organizations and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Embedded and Flexible Crisis Response (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

Refugee-Led Organizations and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Embedded and Flexible Crisis Response

Thursday, January 13, 2022
Marquis BR Salon 13, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Odessa Gonzalez Benson, PhD, MSW, Assistant Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
Irene Routte, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, MI
Ana Paula Pimentel Walker, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Michigan
Mieko Yoshihama, PhD, Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Allison Kelly, MSW student, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Background: Governments and civil society organizations were unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic, and lacked resources to respond comprehensively, particularly to assist those most vulnerable, such as refugee communities. Meanwhile, over the last decade, scholarship on disaster response and recovery have focused on local communities as crucial in developing and implementing timely, effective, sustainable supports. Along those same lines, a recent turn in forced migration studies shifts focus onto refugee-led efforts of providing support, whereas more conventional approaches focus on services from governmental agencies and the nonprofit/ humanitarian sector. However, this line of scholarship is still emergent and inchoate; refugee-led efforts yet lack empirical data and theoretical substantiation. The COVID-19 pandemic presents as a moment for deepening understanding of refugee-led efforts to provide care within the context of crisis.

Methods: Drawing from interview data gained during summer 2020 at the onset of the pandemic, this study examines crisis response activities of grassroots refugee-led organizations (RLOs) in a midwestern metropolitan area. This study is part of a larger participatory action research project that explores RLOs’ roles in resettlement processes. Fourteen refugee leaders, from one Bhutanese RLO and two Congolese RLOs, were interviewed multiple times between March and August 2020 (total of 38 interviews) about their activities, organizational networks, processes and resources. Using deductive analytical approaches, we analyzed data from the interviews to examine RLOs’ activities in the four broad domains of activities previously identified (Gonzalez Benson, 2020).

Results: As the first type of activity, RLOs provided case management related to health, access to food and basic needs, and online services, particularly those related to unemployment. Second, community outreach efforts utilized existing social media platforms/channels to share information and combat misinformation and stigma. Third, programming entailed distribution of personal protective equipment and food, utilizing a RLO leader’s garage. Finally, advocacy efforts entailed communication with the public health department, employers and state/city governmental agencies to call attention to public health inequities and demand solutions.

Discussion/Implications: Findings illustrate the wide scope and range of RLOs’ welfare support activities during times of crisis. Furthermore, these activities point to the salience of local embeddedness and organizational flexibility, offering recommendations for future research. RLOs’ embeddedness, with common language and shared experiences with community members, seemed key: refugees turned to RLO leaders who could translate important public health messages and were able to understand specific concerns. Also, the RLOs seemed flexible in their quick shift to online modalities and targeted advocacy. Indeed, in existing scholarship on disaster response, service providers’ local embeddedness and organizational flexibility are crucial in crisis response (Brown, 2002), and our findings suggest this as area of future research within the specific context of resettled refugees and COVID-19. Joining other scholars (Boin, Lodge & Luesink, 2020), our findings point to future research towards re-envisioning collaborative practice between RLOs and mainstream organizations for longer-term recovery, starting from immediate crisis and onward towards resilience and sustainability.