Abstract: Language Resources and Refugees' Social and Economic Integration: A Qualitative Study (Society for Social Work and Research 28th Annual Conference - Recentering & Democratizing Knowledge: The Next 30 Years of Social Work Science)

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Language Resources and Refugees' Social and Economic Integration: A Qualitative Study

Thursday, January 11, 2024
Marquis BR Salon 12, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Yunju Nam, PhD, Associate Professor, University at Buffalo, SUNY, Buffalo, NY
Min Hu, Doctoral Student, University at Buffalo, NY
Regine Ndanga, Public Health Fellow, Partnership for the Public Good, NY
Sarah Richards-Desai, MSW, Doctoral Candidate, State University of New York at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY
Background and Purpose: Language capability is key to refugees’ social and economic integration in host countries. The extant literature focuses mainly on individual refugees’ ability to speak host languages (Cortes, 2004; Potocky-Tripodi, 2003), while other types of language resources remain understudied. Building a comprehensive understanding of diverse language resources is critical for expanding our knowledge of refugees’ integration and for developing services and policies for the refugee population.

Methods: This study used in-depth interview data from twenty-eight self-identified refugees living in an American rustbelt city. Participants were recruited through a refugee resettlement agency and other community organizations, personal connections, and flyers distributed at ethnic grocery stores and community meetings. Interviews were conducted either in person or through video conferencing software in Arabic, Burmese, English, or Swahili, using a semi-structured interview guide. Data were analyzed to identify emerging themes and patterns.

Results: Qualitative data analyses demonstrate the vital and diverse roles that language resources play in refugees’ social and economic integration. First, study participants describe limited English proficiency as a critical barrier to labor market success. Second, the ability to speak non-English languages promote refugees’ employment and expands social network. For example, a Congolese woman was promoted from a manual job to working as an interpreter at a meat-packing company because of her ability to speak four languages (“I became an interpreter on [in] that company and I used to help Black people communication [communicate], how to speak with their bosses something like that.”). Third, institutionalized language resources (e.g., bilingual caseworkers at resettlement agencies) and informal resources (e.g., bilingual members in family or ethnic community) facilitate refugees’ initial settlement in the United States. Fourth, language communities provide vital social and economic support to refugees. Although they are often equated with ethnic community groups (Beaman, 2012; Nawyn, Gjokaj, Agbenyiga, & Grace, 2012), language communities are sometimes different from and often go beyond the boundaries of ethnic communities (e.g., Arabic language community composed of multiple ethnic groups from Middle East and Northern Africa: “About cultures, I think we do have different cultures. What connects us is the language.”). A Zomi refugee made friends with a Burmese and a Karen at middle school in the U. S. because all three can speak Burmese. A Karen women asked for employment opportunities when she met Burmese speaking people.

Conclusions and Implications: This study’s findings demonstrate the existence and importance of multiple types of language resource, including individual English proficiency, individuals’ ability to speak non-English languages, community-level language resources, and supports from language communities in facilitating refugees’ adaptation and resettlement in a rustbelt city. These findings call for greater attention to the different types of language resources that support refugee integration efforts. Study implications include multilevel considerations in designing programs and policies for refugees.