Abstract: Social Bonds and Bridges: Understanding the Support Systems for Rohingya Unaccompanied Refugee Minors in the U.S (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

Social Bonds and Bridges: Understanding the Support Systems for Rohingya Unaccompanied Refugee Minors in the U.S

Friday, January 14, 2022
Independence BR F, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Kerri Evans, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland Baltimore County, Baltimore, MD
Teri Husfloen, Assistant Professor, U of Maryland
Kylie Diebold, MSW Student, University of Maryland at Baltimore, Baltimore, MD
Background and Purpose: Over one million Rohingya, stateless Muslim minorities, have fled Myanmar’s Rakhine state since the early 1990s due to institutionalized discrimination and sustained violence mirroring ethnic cleaning. Thousands of children have been displaced, and many separated from their family due to death or violence. Since October 2013, the US Unaccompanied Refugee Minor (URM) foster care program has welcomed 152 unaccompanied Rohingya children. When the first Rohingya URMs arrived, extra care and attention was needed to ensure their wellbeing as there were very few Rohingya people in the US.

Methods: Using Putnam’s (1995, 2000, 2002) framework of social capital, our study seeks to better understand the social well-being of Rohingya youth who have lived in the US for several years. The study included a series of focus groups with Rohingya youth as well as social service providers who work/ed with Rohingya URMs including foster care program staff, foster parents, and stakeholders. Questions addressed social supports, both bridges and bonds (Putnam, 1995; 2000; 2002), that helped Rohingyas as they navigated life as teenagers/young adults in the US, and made friends.

Results: The participants described a severe lack of interpreters and difficult adjustment due to culture shock, discrimination, and isolation at arrival. Yet, participants describe that many Rohingya youth have adapted to the US and eventually made friends here as evidenced by a quote “she went to school, she made friends, but it was a struggle that the other kids don't want to talk to her.” More specifically, themes that emerged include: desire to live with other Rohingyas, continued commitment to supporting family and friends abroad, rapid acquisition of English speaking skills due to lack of interpreters, utilization of group counseling with other Rohingya youth, and excitement to mentor future Rohingya URM arrivals should the continued unrest in the Rakhine state lead to more resettlement. A participant described the close bond of these kids, “the genocide that's happening in the camps... I think people not really understanding that because I think it did lend to the Rohingya themselves being very tight knit they don't really mix with the others.” Yet, another person described how the Rohingya youth in the program befriended a Central American newcomer, “they've taken him under their wing, he goes to the mosque, with him, he goes to the store with them... play games with each other. Someone described the “ability for these kids to be mentors and ambassadors and give back to other youth” who are Rohingya.

Implications: The results of the study suggest that Rohingya youth have many social bonds, and we can cultivate these by intentionally resettling vulnerable and new populations in small cohorts to enhance development of social connections. Additionally, Rohingya in the program can serve as an mentors to newcomers. Furthermore, while we understand the importance of communication with family and friends abroad, service providers should simultaneously encourage bridges to more established refugees (ie. business owners and religious leaders) across the country and to US-born persons to build support after discharge from URM.