Refugees are at risk in times of crisis because they are less likely to receive formal support. Although immigrant-refugee communities have historically organized Community-Based initiatives (CBIs)— a form of self-organization in which citizens mobilize resources to collectively carry out projects that provide public goods or services for their community—to mitigate service gaps, there are persistent gaps in knowledge on the scale and impact of CBIs. Further, in the refugee context, CBIs remain largely unexamined when it comes to their ability to create a space for refugee youth to foster a sense of belonging and inclusion through volunteer engagement. Our study examined how participation in a CBI impacted sense of belonging and inclusion among Bhutanese refugee youth. We use Bhutanese Response Assistance Volunteer Effort (BRAVE), a multidimensional CBI by a Bhutanese community-based organization in the US to address the immediate health needs, exacerbated by COVID-19. BRAVE has currently been replicated in 13 US cities, engaging over 250 Bhutanese youth.
Data were collected using a 35- item cross-sectional survey (N=122) with three-open ended questions on the following domains: motivation for volunteering, leadership and skill development opportunities, self-efficacy, mental health, vicarious trauma, social identity, feelings of inclusion, and perceived sense of belonging within the U.S. Respondents were recruited through the BRAVE volunteer listserv from all 13 cities. Paired samples t-tests explored changes in Bhutanese refugee youth volunteers’ perceived sense of belonging and feelings of inclusion within the U.S. from their pre to post-volunteer experience with BRAVE. Qualitative data from the open-ended questions garnered a deeper understanding of Bhutanese refugee youths’ volunteer experience. We used the Rapid and Rigorous Qualitative Data Analysis technique and a three-phased iterative thematic coding process—coding, sorting & synthesizing— to analyze the qualitative data.
The average age of respondents was 22.8 years old. A majority, 65.6%, identified as female and 33.6% as male. Results indicate statistically significant observed increases in both the sense of belonging (t = 9.9, p < .001, d=9.5) and feelings of inclusion (t = 15.13, p < .001, d = 4.3) with large and small effect sizes, respectively. Further, the three overarching themes: nourishment for the soul: healing through helping; bolstering community: Solidarity, advocacy, and fearlessness; and combatting systemic injustices and exclusion through collective action, garnered from the qualitative data corroborated the crucial role of CBI initiatives like BRAVE.
Conclusion and Implications
Study findings indicate that being a BRAVE volunteer played a salient role in Bhutanese refugee youths’ perceived sense of belonging and inclusion in the U.S. In addition to mitigating service gaps, promoting integration in new spaces, strengthening ethnic ties, and building social capital, CBIs like BRAVE can also create spaces for healing, identity and inclusion. The findings have important research policy and practice implications for understanding pathways to belonging and identity in new spaces, the need to recognize minoritized communities’ strengths, and highlight the role of community-academic partnerships in mobilizing programs and resources in times of crisis.