Research on Syrian refugees and depression tells powerful story of letdowns, could spur change

Kos, Greece – October 10, 2015: Syrian refugee and her child at a volunteer’s camp

Health Professor Farah Ahmad is dedicated to serving the most marginalized and vulnerable with a focus on primary care settings and psychosocial health. She recently examined data collected for the Syrian Refugee Integration and Long-term Health Outcomes in Canada study (SyRIA.lth) for the mental health of 1,924 Syrian refugees settled in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia.

The research team, which included York Health Professor Michaela Hynie, who is also a resident faculty member at York’s Centre for Refugee Studies, researchers from the Wellesley Institute, and several universities and settlement agencies across Canada, discovered something intriguing. They found the rates of depression among the refugees were much lower than those found in other Syrian refugee populations – not surprising, given that unlike refugees in many other settings, resettled refugees in Canada have achieved permanent residency and access to employment, health care and safe housing. What was surprising, however, was the significant and worrisome increase in depression experienced by the refugees after two years of their relocation in this new country.

Researchers found that Syrian refugees two years after arrival in Canada experienced depression at higher rates than in the first year after they had arrived in the country
Researchers found that Syrian refugees two years after arrival in Canada experienced depression at higher rates than in the first year after they had arrived in the country

“This really deserves our attention,” Ahmad urges. “If we could identify predictors of mental health struggles and intervene pre-emptively, this could get people the help they need. Programs that promote a stronger sense of social support and control and strengthen language fluency could be effective in reducing depression.”

Farah Ahmad
Farah Ahmad

This new knowledge could advance refugee integration through policy and program modifications.

The research, funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, was published in the Journal of Mental Health (2020).

Resettlement barriers can aggravate previous trauma

The Syrian civil war, an ongoing combat and humanitarian crisis that began in 2011, forced millions of people to flee their homes in search of safety. By May 2019, 5.6 million of these refugees had fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt (United Nations High Commission for Refugees, 2019). Thousands had taken refuge in western countries as well.

In November 2015, the Government of Canada launched “Operation Syrian Refugees” and, in three months, the country had welcomed 25,000 Syrian refugees. This commitment was subsequently expanded to include 25,000 Syrian Government Assisted Refugees and Blended Visa Office Referred Refugees in 2016, as well as additional Privately Sponsored Refugees (Syrian Outcomes Report, June 2019). All told, Canada resettled over 74,000 Syrian refugees by 2020.

Refugees, fleeing their homeland and fearing for their lives, experience lasting trauma that often requires specialized care. This trauma comes from harrowing events that most of us never experience – such as the destruction of family homes, loss of loved ones, torture, rape and more.

All of this underscores the importance of Ahmad’s research.

Refugees experienced lasting trauma that often requires specialized care. Here, a Syrian refugee comforts her child at a volunteer's camp in Kos, Greece on October 10, 2015.
Refugees experienced lasting trauma that often requires specialized care. Here, a Syrian refugee comforts her child at a volunteer’s camp in Kos, Greece on October 10, 2015

Longitudinal study follows subjects over time

In this study, Ahmad and her team sought to evaluate the prevalence of depression symptoms in Syrian refugees within their first year of settlement in Canada (as a baseline) and again at one year later.

The fact that this was a longitudinal study, where researchers study the subjects over time, is important. It means that there’s an added layer of knowledge with unique insights; the researchers can observe how variables can change over an extended period of time and explore the reasons why change occurs.

In this study, the researchers used data from the Syrian Refugee Integration and Long-term Health Outcomes in Canada study (SyRIA.lth). The participants, 1,924 Syrian refugees, were recruited through community-based strategies.

Participants were 49 per cent males and 51 per cent females. The mean [average] age was 38.5 years. Forty-eight per cent had settled in Ontario, 36 per cent in Quebec and 16 per cent in British Columbia. Three-quarters needed an interpreter. Roughly one quarter had jobs.

The researchers interviewed the participants annually, starting in 2017 and continuing until 2020; this study reports on the first two waves of data collection in 2017 and 2018. Depression symptoms were measured using Patient Health Questionnaire 9. This assessment is used to monitor the severity of depression and response to treatment. It can be used to make a tentative diagnosis of depression in at-risk populations.

Researchers discovered rise in depression after one year and found predictors

The researchers found that the prevalence of depression symptoms was 15 per cent at baseline and 18 per cent one year later.

Significant predictors of depression included:

  • having experienced baseline depression,
  • arriving with no relatives in the settling country,
  • language barriers (limited language skills),
  • lack of satisfaction with housing conditions and health services,
  • lower perceived control,
  • lower perceived social support; and
  • longer stay in Canada. 

Ahmad stresses the value in understanding the predictors, since interventions in these areas could alleviate depression in this group of refugees. In particular, she identified four key predictors: baseline depression scores, social support, perceived control and language ability.

For example, she believes that programs promoting a stronger sense of social support and control, and those that strengthen language fluency could be effective in promoting mental health and reducing depression among Syrian refugees.

Our findings are important in advancing scholarly knowledge and to inform the development of focused interventions to address the problem among those who are at a higher risk,” she explains. “Addressing these factors requires multidisciplinary community-based programs to actively reach out to refugees, empower them with information and skills to develop social networks, sense of control and language fluency, and to improve their access to services and employment opportunities,” she adds.

To read the article, visit the journal website. To learn more about Ahmad, visit her Faculty profile page. For more on the Syrian Refugee Settlement Initiative, visit the website.

To learn more about Research & Innovation at York, follow us at @YUResearch; watch our new animated video, which profiles current research strengths and areas of opportunity, such as Artificial Intelligence and Indigenous futurities; and see the snapshot infographic, a glimpse of the year’s successes.

By Megan Mueller, senior manager, Research Communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University,

Virtual colloquium explores racialized implications of COVID-19 in Toronto

Black female student working on a laptop

On April 7, the next session in York University’s “Reciprocal Learning in Times of Crisis” monthly virtual colloquium series will feature a panel of educational experts and activists who will discuss the racialized implications of COVID-19 in Toronto.

The next session, titled “Racialized Implications of COVID-19 in Toronto: An East African Perspective,” will take place at 10:30 a.m. EST/5:30 p.m. EAT via Zoom.

Head shots of four panellists participating in the colloquium
Kherto Ahmed (top left); Sam Tecle (top right); Ekram May (bottom left); and Tesfai Mengesha (bottom right)

The past year has presented unprecedented challenges to students and educators across the world. It has also provided new spaces of opportunity. This session will feature a panel of young people who are both activists and educational experts who work with Success Beyond Limits (SBL), which is a collaborative, youth-led, community-based movement in Toronto’s Jane-Finch community that provides youth with holistic supports to complete their education and facilitate their trajectories of success. Panelists will discuss their experiences navigating schooling, scholarship, and community work amidst COVID-19, which has disproportionately influenced racialized communities like Jane and Finch where SBL is located. Panelists will also reflect on new possibilities for justice and connection that have emerged in Toronto, among East African diasporic communities and beyond.

The panel will feature:

  • Kherto Ahmed, a fourth-year life sciences student at McMaster University, who founded McMaster’s first Black Students Association;
  • Sam Tecle, an assistant professor of Community Engaged Learning at New College, University of Toronto, whose work focuses on Black and Diaspora Studies, Urban Studies and Sociology of Education;
  • Ekram Maye, a 17-year-old Grade 12 student at Westview Centennial Secondary School, who is a past SBL mentee and volunteer, and current SBL mentor; and
  • Tesfai Mengesha, executive director, Operations at SBL.

York University’s Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) Project, Faculty of Education, and Centre for Refugee Studies are partnering to present the “Reciprocal Learning in Times of Crisis” colloquium series that examines the intersections of refugee education, anti-Black racism, and COVID-19 in Canada and East Africa.

This colloquium is the first of its kind to feature experts from York University and from institutions that are comprised of or work with refugees in equal measure. Together, this series will: (1) deepen connections among refugee communities, educational leaders, and scholars within and across institutions; (2) foster a sense of reciprocity in learning; (3) recognize and validate the unique expertise that refugee communities bring to time- or resource-constrained situations; and (4) educate all attendees on a range of topics relevant to refugee education, COVID-19, and anti-Black racism.

New report authored offers analysis of COVID-19’s impact on inequality in Canada

IRCCoverof Report FEATURED
IRCCoverof Report FEATURED
Cover of the IRC Report, One Year Later - Unmasking Covid
Cover of the IRC Report, One Year Later – Unmasking Covid

A report released March 17 by Islamic Relief Canada (IRC) titled, One Year Later – Unmasking COVID-19, concludes that the pandemic threatens to worsen economic inequality and further marginalize vulnerable groups. The report provides an in-depth examination of the impact of the pandemic and offers important policy recommendations. It reveals that lockdowns and closures of non-essential services to slow the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 are devastating economies and the economic well-being of many. Emergency income supports offered by governments have cushioned the impact but are driving up public debt.

The report is authored by York Sociology PhD student Grace Barakat, under the supervision of  Brenda Spotton Visano, University professor at the School of Public Policy and Administration and economics professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.

It finds that as economies reopen, questions of who will bear the burden of this crisis and how this will impact economic inequality arise. The report offers an analysis of emerging evidence that  suggests that marginalized communities, especially Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC), women and low-income people have been hit the hardest by the pandemic. Not only have they incurred higher percentages of illness, they have also experienced the most job losses and economic hardships.

Reyhana Patel, head of communications and government relations for IRC, cites the report in her op ed for CBC titled, “Women struggling due to pandemic need meaningful support to help get back on their feet.” Patel writes: “Despite the fact that more than 80 per cent of jobs have been recovered since the start of the pandemic, a high proportion of women — in particular, members of visible minorities — have not gone back to work, citing a variety of reasons that include things such as lack of child care. The new report notes that based on the most recent demographic statistics available, as of November 2020, Black women had one of the highest unemployment rates at 13 per cent, while the rate is 17 per cent for Indigenous women. That compares to an average national unemployment rate of 8.5 per cent for the same period, according to Statistics Canada.”

IRC, Canada’s largest Muslim charity and relief agency with more than 100 offices around the world, provided funding to support Barakat’s research, which was more than matched by the Government of Ontario’s MITACs Accelerate program. The MITACs Accelerate program is designed to provide students with the opportunity to apply their skills in a non-academic environment and broaden their professional network.

Crisis: Only one of the experiences shared by students and faculty

Students in the Dadaab Refugee Camp work on an assignment for their studies with York University
Students in the Dadaab Refugee Camp work on an assignment for their studies with York University

There has been considerable change in lives worldwide in 2020 due to the novel coronavirus, and the persistence of systemic anti-Black racism.

Rachel Silver
Rachel Silver

Participants in the Faculty of Education’s Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) program have seen the impact of change upon multiple fronts, because the program involves faculty, students and community partners at York’s Keele Campus, as well as in the Dadaab Refugee Complex in Kenya. Rachel Silver, an assistant professor of education at York, with the help of a team of her colleagues in both Toronto and Dadaab, has created a virtual colloquium series, Reciprocal Learning in Times of Crisis, for the program’s faculty and students and other interested parties to consider the issues arising from the confluence of education, the pandemic, and the new waves of resistance to anti-Black racism.

“We’re in this moment together, despite our different individual positions, different colonial histories, and different national public health and education system responses,” Silver said. “It’s an opportunity to learn from each other about how we make sense of and respond to a global crisis in distinct local contexts.

“We can see how systemic inequity is reflected in each space, and how COVID-19 brings to light the underlying systemic issues.”

The Dadaab Education Centre in Kenya
The Dadaab Education Centre in Kenya

Silver put together a committee comprising Esther Munene, the academic administrator of the BHER Learning Centre in Dadaab; Philemon Misoy, the BHER project co-ordinator; Molade Osibodu, a Faculty of Education colleague whose work draws heavily on African de-colonial theories; and two international York graduate students, Sharareh Kashi from Iran and Theodata Fafa Bansah from Ghana, to plan and organize the colloquium, which is a monthly event.

Esther Munene
Esther Munene

“We have planned to change the format each month with different speakers and different hosts,” said Silver. “We are drawing on the talents of diverse graduate students and academics in Kenya and in Canada. But we also wanted to feature our Kenyan institutional partners and BHER students speaking from their lived experiences in the camps.”

“This series is not only for a scholarly audience, but also for community leaders, NGOs and students in both countries.”

The remaining events in the series will touch on a range of topics, including the unique needs of inter-African migrants in southern Africa during COVID-19; the Toronto diasporic community; and the gendering of pandemic-related risks in Kenya, featuring a panel of York’s academic and organizational partners there.

“The series is even more important since we haven’t been able to meet face-to-face with our York colleagues for months due to COVID-19,” said Misoy. “This really opens the lines of communication and allows us to share our experiences working during the pandemic.

Philemon Misoy
Philemon Misoy

“We can look at issues of social, economic and racial discrimination and consider how we support people emerging from conflict. We can take stock of achievements and, by hearing from different people, get ideas how we can shift toward the future. It’s important for north-south relations that we can share ideas freely and help each other.”

Munene agreed.

“It’s good to get the Toronto context on many issues, such as race and gender and learn what it’s like there,” she said. “They can also get to understand our context.”

An eagerness to learn about the Dadaab context was apparent at the most recent session of Reciprocal Learning in Times of Crisis on Nov. 4. It focused on the educational challenges faced in Dadaab due to the pandemic and featured representatives of York’s partner organizations in Dadaab, as well as Abdikadir Bare Abikar, a graduate of the first class of York’s Dadaab-based Masters of Education students, who is now teaching in Somalia. All of the educational organizations based in Dadaab collaborate to ensure that there is no duplication of effort.

Schools in Dadaab have been closed since mid-March, forcing educators to be creative in offering lessons in the camps, where not every student has a computer or laptop and internet connectivity can be suspect.

Students work on the assignments at the Dadaab Education Centre
York U students living in the camp work on the assignments at the Dadaab Education Centre

“The president of Kenya announced the school closures on a Sunday and they had to close the next day,” said Norah Kariba of Windle International Kenya, which runs the secondary schools in Dadaab. “This left students confused about how to continue.

“The quick fix was to introduce radio lessons, although not all learners were able to access them, and there wasn’t enough air time to handle all of the content. However, at least it was a starting point.

“Teachers also formed classes through WhatsApp [a popular phone application used to communicate with groups] and contacted their students. They were able to create a timetable and students were able to download lessons.”

At the university level, there was also disruption.

“Kenyan universities didn’t offer online learning,” said Munene. “It delayed graduation and caused stress, something we had to address with students. A few universities offered online exams, but exams here are usually administered in person, so it was a big hill to tackle.”

Luckily, York continued to offer online courses through its BHER project, and even though the learning centre in Dadaab was closed, students could access lectures.

“It was an abrupt shift to online learning, and many students weren’t used to the lack of interaction,” said Munene. “BHER also had to buy laptops or tablets and data bundles, so the students had access. We have learned to adapt to technological change.

“However, many students had lost jobs due to the pandemic and it was tough for them to concentrate on school. We tried to comfort them and did some mental health awareness work about the value of sharing their concerns.”

Dadaab York student
The centre is equipped with computers and supplies, which are essential for student success in the online learning environment that was made necessary by the global pandemic

Dakane Bare, a representative of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees in Kenya, offered an observation that served as the motto for the group going forward: “With calamity comes opportunity.”

Silver and the colloquium organizing committee hope that the series continues to provide excellent opportunities for learning and connection.

“Our big goal is to push back against the notion of expertise being located only in one geo-political space, such as the university,” Silver said. “There is much learning to be done.”

Visit the series website at for a full listing of upcoming talks and to view the Zoom recordings from all previous talks.

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer

Study indicates importance of post-settlement supports to address depression in Syrian refugees

research graphic
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More attention is needed on the impact of post-migration conditions on depression-level symptoms for Syrian refugees in Canada, according to new research out of York University.

A paper published in the Journal of Mental Health on May 21 studies the prevalence of depression-level symptoms in a sample of participants in Canada’s Syrian Refugee Resettlement Initiative to inform relevant programs and policies. Canada’s initiative launched in 2015 and resettled more than 40,000 refugees in 15 months.

Farah Ahmad
Farah Ahmad

The eruption of civil war in Syria forced millions of people to flee their homes in search of safety. Evidence shows that refugees from a war-stricken country experience traumatizing events in the country, when fleeing and while in asylum, which could affect their health and well-being. This can contribute to high rates of common mental health problems including depression, says one of the study’s authors York University Faculty of Health Professor Farah Ahmad. However, she adds, only a few studies specific to the recent wave of resettled Syrian refugees exist especially with a focus on depression.

Using data collected by structured interviews, the study “Depression-level symptoms among Syrian refugees: findings from a Canadian longitudinal study” analyzes the prevalence of depression-level symptoms at baseline and one-year post-resettlement. The symptoms of depression were measured using the Patient Health Questionnaire 9 (PHQ-9), and analysis for associated factors was executed through multinomial logistic regression.

Michaela Hynie
Michaela Hynie

Ahmad and Postdoctoral Visiting Fellow, Nasih Othman, examined data drawn from the Syrian Refugee Integration and Long-term Health Outcomes study (SyRIA.lth), a longitudinal survey and qualitative assessments of 1,924 Syrian refugees who arrived in Canada between 2015 and 2017. The study, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), is led by Professors Michaela Hynie (Health) and Susan McGrath (Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies) from York University and Dr. Kwame McKenzie from the Center for Addictions and Mental Health and the Wellesley Institute.

The authors found the prevalence of depression-level symptoms increased from 15 per cent at baseline to 18 per cent in year two. The significant predictors of depression-level symptoms at year two were baseline depression, sponsorship program, province of resettlement, poor language skills, lack of satisfaction with housing conditions and with health services, lower perceived control, lower perceived social support and longer stay in Canada.

“The existence of baseline depression-level scores increased the risk of depression-level scores at year two by 10-fold. Indeed, it signifies the importance of early detection and treatment of depression among refugees soon after arrival,” said Ahmad. However, the increasing rate of depression with length of time in Canada reinforces the importance of addressing post-migration conditions to promote refugee mental health.

Other studies using SyRIA.lth data, said Othman, have shown that a significant proportion of them seem to have unmet needs and that they rarely access mental health services.

Also important to note is the rate of depression found for Canadian Syrian refugees in this study are much lower than the rates reported for Syrian refugees in countries neighbouring Syria or among those who sought asylum in some European countries.

“The relatively low prevalence of depression among resettled Canadian Syrian refugees at this initial stage of their resettlement may be partially attributed to stability that permanent residency status offers them,” said Hynie.

The results also shed light on the significance of language skills and social support in reducing the risk of depression at year two. For example, privately sponsored refugees – a group with more social connections, better language skills and higher levels of education – had a 60 per cent lower risk of depression-level scores at year two compared to government-assisted refugees. Also, those who continued to have a need for interpreter at year two had increased risk of depression-level scores at year two.

Collectively, the study’s findings emphasize the need for improved access to appropriate housing and language and health services for the settlement of refugees.

York University to grant master’s degrees to first cohort of refugees in Kenya

Don and 5 M.Ed. BHER students who will be completing in June. (From left to right: Ochan Leomoi, Okello Oyat, Abdullahi Aden, Arte Dagane, Don Dippo, Abdikadir Abikar
Professor Don Dippo and 5 M.Ed. BHER students who will be completing in June. (From left to right: Ochan Leomoi, Okello Oyat, Abdullahi Aden, Arte Dagane, Don Dippo, Abdikadir Abikar

Mark Okello Oyat and four of his fellow students at the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya are waiting for the pandemic to wind down before celebrating their new master’s degrees in style, but the thrill is still present among the members of the first cohort of Dadaab students to earn York University graduate degrees, which will be awarded in June. 

“I am so happy to be able to accomplish my graduate studies,” Okello Oyat said from Kenya via Zoom during a recent interview. “We are breaking the paradigm for refugees living in an encampment. It is a unique thing that Professor Don Dippo, from the Faculty of Education, has done.” 

Still photo of BHER Learning Centre computer lab and tree where students often sit to do groupwork and have discussions
Still photo of BHER Learning Centre computer lab and tree where students often sit to do group work and have discussions

The master’s degree in education is part of a continuum of postsecondary programs that Dippo and his colleagues have established at Dadaab as part of the Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) Project, a series that begins with a university preparation program, followed by certificate and diploma programs, bachelor’s degree programs and now, the master’s degree. The first BHER program, university preparation, began in Dadaab in 2013. 

The programs are an effort to offer “gender equitable teacher education programs to working, untrained teachers who are already contributing back to the community, increasing and improving education in the camps overall.” The University of British Columbia, Kenyatta University and Moi University are partners in the BHER program. 

Until a few years ago, a bachelor’s degree was the most the students could hope to earn at Dadaab, which is actually a collection of five refugee camps in northeast Kenya. However, they were eager for more opportunity. 

Faculty of Education Professor Don Dippo (second from right) poses for a cameo with five MEd BHER students who will be receiving their graduate degrees in June. Pictured from left are: Ochan Leomoi, Okello Oyat, Abdullahi Aden, Arte Dagane, Don Dippo and Abdikadir Abikar

“The students started lobbying for a master’s degree program by the second year of their bachelor’s program,” said Dippo. “This was not part of the original BHER project design but there were students in Dadaab who were capable and persistent, so I discussed the matter with Dean Lyndon Martin and Graduate Program Director Qiang Zha.  It was the willingness of my colleagues in the graduate program to open their courses to distance participation that made the MEd program in Dadaab possible.”  

The program began with seven students in 2018 and admitted 12 more students in 2019, a total of 19 students, seven of whom are women. Like all York students, they have student ID cards and access to Moodle and Zoom and the York University Libraries. They study in the same courses as their Toronto master’s degree in education studies peers and meet with them periodically over Zoom.  

From September to December and January to April, the Dadaab students have tutorials and take online courses meeting for tutorial sessions on Fridays and Saturdays. Thegather at the learning centre at Dadaab at 3 p.m., while their York professors and teaching assistants, given the time difference, are in the virtual classroom at 7 a.m. Students in Toronto have an open invitation to join in for tutorials. 

“We do get Toronto students in the Zoom tutorials on Fridays and Saturdays,” said Dippo. “During the pandemic self-isolation, more students are joining in.” 

During the fall and winter semesters, BHER students work as teachers in the camps and study online over the weekends. In April, August and December, the months when the students have no teaching responsibilities, their York professors and teaching assistants travel to Dadaab to offer intensive, in-person courses. 

“These on-site courses are really valuable, because the instructors actually get a chance to meet the students, making the program more personal,” said HaEun Kim, York’s BHER program administrator. 

“With this graduate degree, the students will be eligible to apply for teaching positions at many post-secondary institutions in Kenya, Somalia and other parts of Africa,” Dippo said. “We have established a good working relationship with the Somali National University (SNU) in Mogadishu and have had many discussions with the Dean at SNU’s Faculty of Education and Social Sciences, Fouzia Warsame, about the valuable contributions our graduates will make to efforts to rebuild public education in Somalia in the aftermath of the civil war.”   

BHER students at the first Research Symposium held in Dadaab
BHER students at the first Research Symposium held in Dadaab

Many BHER graduates have returned to Somalia.  They are like their own alumni association,” he said. “This group of students has come together, learned from each other, and has become committed to each other and supported each other’s successes. They are interested in improving the quality of education for refugees, internally displaced people and others whose lives have been affected by conflict and rebuilding national education programs. 

“It’s their achievement, their aspirations and their commitment to their communities and to a peaceful and prosperous future that keeps us coming back to Dadaab. Our students inspire us.”  

Kim noted, “If it weren’t for BHER classes, many of our students may not have had the opportunity to come together. The camps themselves tend to be regionally divided with different communities often keeping to themselves. This is a pan-African group of students from many nations, language groups, religions and cultures, with both men and women studying together. This community of learners has been fostered and strengthened over time and that’s no small achievement.” 

The master’s degree graduates are also contributing to emerging African scholarship in the field of refugee and forced migration studies. Dippo and his colleagues, including Professors Nombuso Dlamini, Steve Alsop and Kurt Thumlert from the Faculty of Education, have ensured that the cohort has experience presenting at scholarly conferences and publishing their research. The graduating cohort made a Zoom presentation last year at the Canadian Association for Refugee and Forced Migration Studies (CARFMS) at York University and the lecture hall in Toronto was full at 7 a.m. The graduating cohort of master’s students have also co-authored articles published in two issues of Oxford University’s Forced Migration Review. 

“We want to encourage them to continue to research, write and present in a field where they are really underrepresented,” Dippo said. 

These students are also role models for others at the camps. “Retention rates in high schools in Dadaab are higher because the students know that if they graduate, they can continue on with their studies while staying connected to their families and their communities living in the camps,” Dippo said. “The women students in BHER programs also show others that it is possible to have a family and to continue your education.” 

Ochan Leomoi, one of the students in the cohort set to graduate, continues giving back to the community. 

Currently, I am teaching the vulnerable children in Safe Haven, a protected space, and also assisting Borderless Higher Education for Refugee course directors in teaching and mentoring the students in this project,” he said. 

His classmate, Okello Oyat, is dreaming about doing a PhD next, but he also sees himself making a difference in lives in Dadaab. 

“We will be able to change a lot of lives and situations in the Horn of Africa,” he said. “The community here has a lot of challenges, and we’ll be able to use what we’ve learned to drive change here. As refugees, there is a lot we need to do to improve our quality of life.” 

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus

York research explores refugee participation in Kenyan camps

York University doctoral student Mohamed Duale documents the dilemmas faced by refugees in extended exile in his recent report for the Local Engagement Refugee Research Network (LERRN), a team of researchers and practitioners committed to promoting protection and solutions with and for refugees.

Mohammed Duale
Mohamed Duale

Duale spent the summer of 2019 in a research placement for the LERRN project, a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) funded Partnership Grant, which has a goal is to ensure that refugee research, policy and practice are shaped by a more inclusive, equitable and informed engagement with civil society.

Duale’s research in a Kakuma refugee complex in 2019 shows how refugee-led organizations in camps provide vital programs in education, health awareness, sports and recreation, but that there is a need to further involve refugees in planning and decision-making process.

Duale, who is working with Don Dippo, University Professor in Education, is the author of the new working paper titled “To be a refugee it’s like to be without your arms, legs: A Narrative Inquiry into Refugee Participation in Kakuma Refugee Camp and Nairobi, Kenya.”

At York, Duale’s doctoral research is focused on Somali youth living in the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya. As an immigrant from Somalia himself, Duale spent a decade working with marginalized communities in Toronto, and especially African immigrants, after completing a BA and MA at York and a BEd at the University of Toronto. Through this work, Duale developed a keen interest in refugee issues, which led to his research looking at refugee education and refugee-led organizations in Kenya. Kenya is the second-largest refugee-hosting country in Africa, with over half of the refugees originating in neighbouring Somalia.

While in the Kakuma refugee camp and Nairobi in 2019, Duale conducted a series of focus groups and key informant interviews with individuals involved in refugee-led community-based organizations. His research focused on the stories of refugees and refugee leaders in order to examine their participation in the planning of programs for refugees. Historically, refugees have been seen as the passive recipients of aid, but there has been a growing call for a shift towards engaging refugees as actors and authors of the places in which they live, integrated into the society of their host countries.

Kakuma refugee camp

Duale’s research in Kenya indicates, however, that there are many obstacles to participation in the refugee regime. Social barriers, such as sexual and gender-based violence, as well as family obligations, limit the levels of girls’ participation in schools and women more generally. Regular outbreaks of general violence, lack of affordable transportation, and police harassment are all faced by residents of the Kakuma camp on a daily basis. Duale notes that “one of the most striking inconsistencies is between national policies which limit a refugee’s access to the usual rights of civilian life and global policy prescriptions calling for refugee self-sufficiency and involvement in refugee programming”. At the same time, he contends, the goals of self-sufficiency and participation need to be approached critically. Not only are there limitations on achieving those goals, but they may also be at odds with the network of power relations in which refugees find themselves.

Duale’s involvement with issues of refugee engagement in Kenya stems from his teaching for and doctoral research on York’s Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) Project. Since its establishment in 2012, the aim of the BHER project has been to make post-secondary education accessible for refugees, specifically in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, one of the largest in the world. Through the BHER project, Duale has taught and mentored refugee teachers in Dadaab who in turn make education accessible to students in the camp.

Duale’s research is especially relevant in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has focused attention on the plight and living conditions of the world’s refugees, especially those living in densely-populated camps. There are currently 71 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, and many are at heightened risk from an outbreak of the virus.

York PhD student examines the diversity of refugee experiences

Dina Taha’s work has taken her from Egypt to Canada and back again on a journey of research and discovery about the lives and survival strategies of Syrian refugee women. From a career as a teacher, researcher and graduate student in Cairo, Taha came to York University to pursue a PhD in sociology.

Dina Taha
Dina Taha

Driven by a passion for social justice issues, she worked as a research assistant for the Refugee Research Network, led by Professor Emerita Susan McGrath and hosted by York University’s Centre for Refugee Studies. More recently, she was hired as a research and knowledge mobilization coordinator at Making the Shift, part of a youth homelessness innovation lab, also located at York.

During her doctoral work, Taha returned to Egypt and conducted an intensive series of interviews with Syrian refugee women who had escaped the conflict in Syria by settling in Egypt, and marrying Egyptian men. This fieldwork, conducted in the summer of 2017, led Taha to analyze the decisions of the Syrian women (and a smaller group of the Egyptian husbands) based on their own narratives. Her work aims to highlight the specificity of localized circumstances faced by people displaced by war as a corrective to the homogeneous and vulnerable image that the term “refugees” conjures in the popular imagination.

Taha adds a sophisticated understanding of the choices made by Syrian refugee women about their social relationships, children’s well-being, and economic futures, rethinking notions such as agency, victimhood and empowerment. A short animated video hosted on the Refugee Research Network at the Centre for Refugee Studies at York, provides a snapshot of Taha’s work.

In addition to her doctoral work and various research and knowledge mobilization positions at York, Taha has been involved as a research assistant in the CRS-hosted Local Engagement Refugee Research Network (LERRN), a SSHRC Partnership Grant that involves a team of researchers from York, McGill University, Carleton University and the University of Ottawa, as well as other international university partners and NGOs in Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon and Tanzania.

As part of her participation in LERRN, Taha has just published a working paper that provides a critical review of and intervention into refugee research. Specifically, the paper explores the relevance of intersectionality as an analytical framing to understanding refugee lives. Intersectionality is a term that that was first coined in the late 1980s by Kimberlé Crenshaw (a York honorary graduate at Convocation in June 2019) and has evolved since to recognize the ways in which various dimensions of oppression such as race, class, and gender are overlapping and mutually reinforcing (Crenshaw 1989).

Taha suggests that intersectionality helps us to understand refugees as a diverse group whose “experiences are shaped by multiple identities such as gender, race, national origin, class, age, (dis)ability and sexual orientation” (Taha 2019). People’s experience is co-constituted across many axes of difference in which nationality, race, ethnicity, class, gender and location among other relationships. For people displaced by war, there is no ‘common’ experience of the dehumanized refugee. Taha shows how and why Syrian woman made the decisions they did.

York faculty generate new research on resettlement of refugees in global south

Canada is currently the world leader in the resettlement of refugees, eclipsing the U.S. in 2018, with the arrival of 28,100 refugee newcomers, according to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. At a global scale, however, this represents just a small fraction of the 1.4 million individuals who are seeking protection and resettlement. Countries in the global south host more than 80 per cent of the world’s refugees and Canada has an important role to play in research, policy and practice in major refugee-hosting areas around the world.

Members of LERRN during a recent meeting

In response to this the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)-funded project, the Local Engagement Refugee Research Network (LERRN), has developed a team of researchers and practitioners, as well as a partnership of universities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), committed to promoting protection and finding solutions in collaboration with refugees around the world. Through LERRN, York University researchers at the Centre for Refugees Studies (CRS) are centrally involved in generating new research with scholars and humanitarian workers in Canada and in four major refugee-hosting countries in the global south: Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon and Tanzania.

Outstanding graduate students from the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, as well as the Faculty of Education, have taken lead roles in LERRN, with four CRS faculty involved as key players on the project as co-applicants/thematic leads (Jennifer Hyndman, Christopher Kyriakides, Dagmar Soennecken), and as adviser (Michaela Hynie).

LERRN’s Project Director, James Milner, associate professor of political science at Carleton University, will be present at CRS on York’s Keele campus on Thursday, Jan. 23, from 12:30 to 2 p.m. to deliver a talk titled “Civil society and the everyday politics of the global refugee regime: Early lessons from the Local Engagement Refugee Research Network (LERRN).” All are welcome.

A key impetus for LERRN is to acknowledge the fact that although a majority of refugees are in the global south (UNHCR 2017), most of the research and knowledge about them is generated in the global north, and to interrupt the power relations and patterns of doing research that such asymmetry has created.  LERRN aims to amplify the perspectives of refugees themselves and those in the global south by ensuring a more inclusive, equitable and informed engagement with diverse thinkers and practitioners.

Osgoode prof finds refugee determinations in Canada woefully subjective

Refugee mother and child in Idomeni

Access to justice is the cornerstone of the Canadian legal system. Five years ago, Osgoode Hall Law School Professor Sean Rehaag, director of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University, led a groundbreaking study that examined access to justice for refugees in Canada. This research concluded that the handling of refugee cases was inconsistent and arbitrary; the outcome depended on which judge decided the case.

With funding from the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada, Rehaag reinvestigated the same issue half a decade later, but found that little has changed. “The luck of the draw remains a stubbornly persistent feature of the judicial review process. This is unacceptable,” Rehaag says. “Refugee determinations involve life and death questions. Change is urgently needed.”

Refugees could be subjected to torture, cruel and unusual treatment or punishment, or death if they were returned to their country of nationality
Refugees could be subjected to torture, cruel and unusual treatment or punishment, or death if they were returned to their country of nationality

This increasingly relevant and timely work, the findings of which were accepted for publication in the Queen’s Law Journal (2019), could not be more policy applicable.

Refugees represent an acutely vulnerable population

A snapshot of immigration and refugees underscores the importance of this kind of research for Canada. First, immigration is growing:

  • Newcomers represent nearly 22 per cent of today’s population – this could topple the record number (22 per cent) recorded in the 1921 census, the highest level since Confederation (StatsCan, 2016 census).
  • According to StatCan’s projections, the proportion of Canada’s foreign-born population could reach up to 30 per cent by 2036.

Second, refugee numbers are growing. While refugees represented 10 per cent of all immigrants in 2014, this percentage grew to 24 in 2016 (StatsCan, 2016 census).

Reflecting this influx, the number of refugee claims in Canada has risen from more than 10,000 in 2013 to more than 47,000 in 2017, according to Rehaag.

Refugees represent a vulnerable population. They face persecution in their country of nationality based on race, religion, nationality, and/or membership in a particular social or political group. If they were returned to their country of nationality, they could be subjected to a danger of torture, to a risk to their lives, or to a risk of cruel and unusual treatment or punishment.

Refugee claims have risen from 10,000+ in 2013 to 47,000+ in 2017
Refugee claims have risen from 10,000-plus in 2013 to 47,000-plus in 2017

Study designed to check back with the system after earlier research

As mentioned, Rehaag’s research updates an earlier study of decision-making in the refugee law context in Canada’s Federal Court. The initial study, which looked at 23,000 applicants from 2005 to 2010, found that outcomes in Federal Court applications for judicial review of refugee determinations depended all too often on the luck of the draw – which judge decided the case. Rehaag found that individual judges granted leave at very different rates. (Applicants who want the Federal Court to review their refugee determination must first apply for “leave,” or permission from the court.)

A note about process: Federal Court judges do not grant (or refuse) refugee status. Instead, they hear applications for judicial review of decisions made by Immigration & Refugee Board (IRB) members. If they grant an application for judicial review of a negative refugee determination, it does not mean that they are granting refugee protection; it just means that they are overturning the initial decision and sending the case back down to the IRB to be redetermined. There, at this stage, the IRB could choose to grant or not grant refugee protection.

Since the initial study, the Federal Court adopted measures to address these variations. It was in this context that Rehaag wanted to check in again and see if the new measures were effective. This time, in September 2016, he collected data from over 33,000 court dockets from 2008 to 2016. He used a computer program’s written code to parse data from online court dockets, then he optimized the code, through trial and error, to improve the accuracy rate to 99 per cent.

Key findings indicate more work needs to be done

Sean Rehaag

The findings of this study show that the situation hasn’t changed much since the past research was undertaken. “From 2013 to 2016, if a claimant was lucky with leave judge assignment, then they were more than ten times more likely to succeed with their application than if they were unlucky with leave judge assignment,” Rehaag explains. “Most importantly, this isn’t a phenomenon restricted to a handful of outlier judges.”

Policy recommendations aimed at key actors in legal system

Rehaag has some compelling recommendations for reform.

  1. For Parliament: abolish or reform the leave requirement. He believes that refugee claimants should not need to go through a leave requirement, which has proven to be an arbitrary barrier.
  2. For the court: same judge for leave and merits. In most applications for judicial review where leave is granted, a different judge decides the case on the merits at the judicial review stage than the judge who decided to grant leave. Rehaag suggests that this judge be the same in both cases. “This would stop amplifying the luck of the draw to the disadvantage of refugee claimants,” he explains.
  3. For judges: alternative judicial processes. To avoid subjectivity, Rehaag suggests that the leave judge not consider whether they think a reasonably arguable case has been made, but rather consider whether any of their colleagues might be of the view that the applicant has presented a reasonably arguable case.

Rehaag presses for change. “The time for study is over. It’s now time for action,” he emphasizes.

To read the working draft of the article “Judicial Review of Refugee Determinations (II): Revisiting the Luck of the Draw,” which will be published in the Queen’s Law Journal (2019), visit the website. To read the original research, visit the website. To learn more about Rehaag, visit his Faculty profile.

To learn more about Research & Innovation at York, follow us at @YUResearch; watch our new animated video, which profiles current research strengths and areas of opportunity such as artificial intelligence and Indigenous futurities; and see the snapshot infographic for a glimpse of the year’s successes.

By Megan Mueller, senior manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University,