Ben KuoPsychology professor Ben Kuo will lead the Windsor portion of a national study into the long-term integration of Syrian refugees into Canadian life.

UWindsor study to track long-term health and wellness of Syrian refugees

Researchers across Canada are starting a five-year intensive study to monitor how Syrian refugees are settling into Canadian life. Psychology professor Ben Kuo will lead the UWindsor portion of the national study and will track the ongoing physical and mental health of 135 Syrian refugees living in Windsor.

“It’s exciting to see research addressing this immediate issue we are facing in Canada,” says Dr. Kuo. “Such innovative research is an enormous undertaking, so it is wonderful that Windsor will become a key player in such a massive project.”

The project, Long-term Integration and Health Outcomes of Syrian Refugees in Canada, received $1.3 million from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to track Syrian refugees who moved to Canada with government assistance or private sponsorship.

“This is the first study in Canada to have the opportunity to look at long-term integration for refugees,” Kuo says. “And it is a timely issue, as Canada will continue to bring in refugees, with a thousand arriving in Windsor in just the last 12 months.”

The questionnaires will address how individuals and families are utilizing various services like language, physical health, psychological and mental health. Two Arabic-speaking research assistants will conduct focus groups and in-home surveys in that language.

“We’ve designed the entire experience to be culturally respectful and non-intrusive,” says Kuo. “Instead of sending out an e-mail with a link to a faceless digital survey, our researchers will build trust by going into the homes and speaking to the refugees one-on-one, in their own language.”

The long-term study follows participants four years beyond the typical monitoring period. The Canadian government’s Resettlement Assistance Program offers refugees services and financial assistance for up to 12 months to help them find housing, schools, literacy classes, and employment.

Kuo says that after being displaced from traumatic and violent situations, some people may require long-term mental health help. Yet, psychological issues may not rise to the surface until after their first year living in Canada, when the focus tends to revolve around the day-to-day basics of living.

“In most cases, mental health issues are not immediately revealed, but after a couple of years, as they become comfortable in their adoptive home, their past experiences of trauma and loss start to creep in, and these long lasting scars can be accompanied by shame,” says Kuo.

By closely studying this one specific group of refugees, Kuo says he hopes they can highlight issues that affect various groups who arrive from different parts of the world. This will help provide a base of data for future policy changes.

“If we can get solid data showing mental health issues surfacing a year or more after that initial bracket of service, we can understand what needs to happen next,” he says. “We’ll know what additional mental health services, regarding therapy or intervention, are needed over the long term so they feel more welcome and integrated into Canadian society.”

The Multicultural Council of Windsor and Essex County will help the UWindsor team find the local 135 participants, with the first interviews expected to commence in January 2017. Nationally, researchers will conduct studies with 2,250 refugees who settled in large and small cities across several provinces.

The national team will consist of academic researchers, psychologists, psychiatrists, public health and refugee studies researchers as well as community agencies, health clinics and physicians. UWindsor joins academic researchers from the University of British Columbia, McGill University, the University of Toronto and York University.