York researcher wants to change our understanding of refugees

Since 9/11, the movement of refugees across the global landscape has become an increasingly important issue to many countries. As negative perceptions of refugees increase, North American borders have tightened, slowing the flow of refugees into Canada and the United States. It’s an alarming trend that has made a harsh impact on the lives of people trying to flee persecution, poverty, war-torn countries and worse. It’s also a trend that York Professor Susan McGrath is trying to change.

Susan McGrathDirector of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York, McGrath is leading a major collaborative and interdisciplinary research project, called “The Refugee Research Cluster” (RRC). The project will pull together researchers from cities across Canada (including Edmonton, Kingston, Montreal and Toronto) to explore refugee issues and examine our perceptions – and misconceptions – of refugees.

Right: Susan McGrath

“People often don’t make a distinction between refugees and immigrants,” says McGrath, who is a professor in Atkinson’s School of Social Work and a York alumna (MES ‘90). “In fact, many people often dismiss refugees as criminals or undesirables. But we have to acknowledge that a refugee’s departure from their home country often is forced rather than planned, involves devastating losses of property and family, and leads to a more troubled and challenging integration into Canada.”

McGrath’s project aims to explore the complex issues surrounding all levels of the refugee experience – from the years that many refugees spend in limbo, waiting for legal status, to the difficulties they encounter as they try to settle, learn a new language and seek employment.

research cluster art

Left: Detail from RRC poster

“For example, many women refugees who have lost their husbands in wars have real difficulty finding work,” says McGrath. “This is because a lot of these women come from agrarian societies where women primarily look after the home and the children. If we don’t understand facts like this, we can’t possibly understand these refugees. In other words, we need to view the refugee experience in a much more sophisticated way.”

Ultimately, McGrath, who is also helping to develop a curriculum for nurses in Rwanda, hopes that her research cluster will not only change the way we think about refugees but also contribute to the development of public policy that will improve lives by creating faster and fairer processes of determination while providing increased assistance for settlement and integration.

“We’re really looking forward to building on Canada’s strengths in refugee protection and humanitarian aid,” says McGrath.

This article was submitted to YFile by Jason Guriel, research assistant in the Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation.