Research aims to improve life of refugees
Lincoln is one of many cities across the U.S. that hosts international refugees through social service agencies contracted with the U.S. Department of State. Many come from war-torn countries where daily existence is dangerous and intolerable. Refugees faced life-threatening conditions in their homelands, and upon arrival in the U.S. they face the overwhelming tasks of finding housing, food, work, transportation and schools. Improving the well-being of these refugee families is the research interest of Julie Tippens, assistant professor in Child, Youth and Family Studies.
As a community-engaged researcher, Tippens studies the journeys, struggles and vulnerabilities of migrants and their families. With colleague Megan Kelley, assistant professor of Nutrition and Health Sciences, Tippens is planning to gather baseline mental health data of local refugees for the New Americans Task Force in Lincoln. Its mental health subcommittee is focusing on exploring proven, cost-effective ways to improve immigrant and refugee psychosocial well-being, with the hope that more collaboration between community partners will have a greater impact on refugee well-being.
Tippens says fewer than 1 percent of refugees resettle to countries like the United States, Australia and Sweden. From a broader perspective, she also wants to study the root causes of forced migration and to analyze, given current resources, what more can be done to support refugee families who can give so much to their new communities.
“In Nebraska, we have seen how immigrants and refugees can be huge assets to our communities,” said Tippens. “They are helping to revitalizing rural towns by using their remarkable skills and talents to start new businesses and meet local needs, such as hard-to-fill jobs.”
Tippens’ research has taken her on a journey to Tanzania this summer, on the east central coast of Africa. There, she is exploring how older adult refugees manage stress and coping. She hopes to learn how the resources they use can be integrated into policies and programs to promote a broader sense of well-being, especially in countries that grant refugees asylum, until they obtain repatriation or resettlement.
Previous experience working with Congolese refugees in Kenya provides Tippens with a constant reminder of the importance of being intimately engaged in ethnographic research. She recalls her observations of a woman named Yvette.
“She was always inside and always cooking,” said Tippens. “When I visited her home, she was either alone or accompanied by her children. In my field notes, I wrote that she had a lack of social support and engagement with her ethnic community and the broader community of Nairobi. It turns out that Yvette was always cooking in her home, not because she was socially isolated, but because she’s an incredible chef! Her home actually functioned as a restaurant, and because Yvette had so many interactions, she was connected with everyone in the Congolese community. Contrary to what I had initially believed, she was actually doing quite well.”
The experience with Yvette, Tippens believes, is an example of how research should challenge assumptions and intentionally create space to change and question personal perspectives. Applying this concept of challenging perspectives here in Nebraska, she reflected that her first reaction to the “Nebraska nice” slogan was, “Can’t they think of anything better?” But after living in Nebraska for nearly a year, she has come to understand its great significance in the lives of Nebraskans and she tirelessly embodies this community value in work she does to strengthen community-academic relationships.
Deeply influenced by her work as a practitioner, Tippens brings a unique view to research on resilience, in the context of forced migration. By building a bridge between her Nebraska students, colleagues and the Lincoln community, she hopes that her work results in better lives for refugees and a richer local community.