Jessica Gaddy

Lost in translation: Social work student researches how overlooked refugees find ways to cope

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Jessica Gaddy spent three weeks last summer in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, researching the psychosocial challenges and coping mechanisms of refugees, and she found the experience to be eye-opening. Her interest in the field has not dimmed since her return to the U.S. and Virginia Commonwealth University.

Gaddy — a second-year student in the Master of Social Work Program — became involved in refugee research through Hyojin Im, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Social Work, who trains health care and service providers about mental health care needs for victims of trauma in Kuala Lumpur.

“I soon found so much purpose and interest in this particular research field because refugees are such an underrecognized population that faces insurmountable daily challenges,” Gaddy said.

Among the refugees Gaddy interviewed and studied in Kuala Lumpur were Syrian, Iranian, Afghan, Pakistani, Kachin, Chin and Somali. Gaddy knew very little about the refugee population prior to the research, and her interest continued to grow with her involvement.

“Despite their conditions, I couldn’t fathom … how they were the most hopeful and positive people I ever met,” Gaddy said.

What she found most inspiring were the refugees’ coping methods through cultural or traditional remedies and spirituality. The refugees utilized a variety of methods based on their cultural traditions to lean on their faith to get through difficult times. Physical and psychological interaction was crucial to the refugees’ coping, Gaddy said.

“[The] premise of our study was to identify the primary problems the refugees were experiencing, particularly in a country where refugee rights aren’t honored,” she said.

Through one-on-one interviews with the refugees, Gaddy learned of the challenges they face, such as not being legally allowed to obtain employment, health care and housing. Because of these obstacles, the refugees have to support each other, which they manage by settling in communities together.

The U.N. Refugee Agency assists with placing refugees so they can acclimate easily with people who speak the same languages. Some more established communities create their own centers for worship. Multiple families live with one another to afford living together. Gaddy said this can be seen as a form of social, financial and emotional support.

Kuala Lumpur is unique because Malaysian refugee rights are not in accordance with the U.N. Refugee Convention. Gaddy said this causes Malaysian refugees to face long waiting periods for proper housing and resources and also makes resettlement opportunities slim.

Many people go unnoticed or get overlooked in the refugee process — Gaddy says they are “lost in translation” — and continue through cycles that leave them largely forgotten. Gaddy also notes that refugees in Kuala Lumpur are subject to intense discrimination, living in constant fear of the Kuala Lumpur police, which sometimes will ask for illegal payments or will unlawfully send refugees to detention centers.

Gaddy hopes to research and explore Africa, Myanmar or Iran in the future to “implement some change or give back to the community,” now that she knows how to add to it, Gaddy explained.

The research data from Kuala Lumpur will be compiled with a separate but similar study to bridge awareness of refugee challenges and improve their experiences.


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