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KU scholar documents African refugees' journeys to Europe, helps improve programs to assist transition

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

LAWRENCE — War, famine and persecution have prompted millions to flee their homes as refugees around the world. While working in Italy, a University of Kansas scholar saw firsthand scores of African refugees arrive there, which grew into a research project to understand their experiences and assess how local agencies can better help them assimilate in a new society.

Terry KoenigTerry Koenig, professor of social welfare at KU, has partnered with the Universitá Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in leading a study abroad program to Italy for the past seven years. Student participants visit agencies where Italian social workers assist clients, including homeless shelters, psychiatric clinics, disability centers, foster care settings and health and aging facilities. The group saw boats of immigrants arriving in Italy or returning there after being turned away from other nations.

Eventually, Koenig partnered with Cometa, a foster care agency that also supports a vocational training program in Como, Italy, dedicated to helping young adults, including many African refugees, learn Italian and gain job skills. That led to a partnership in which researchers interviewed more than 30 African refugees, Cometa staff and internship business partners to learn about the migrants’ journeys and the effectiveness of the program to help them settle in Italy.

“I was fascinated by their journey,” Koenig said of the sub-Saharan African refugees. “In the seven years I was going to Como, the refugee crisis broke out and we often witnessed the stories about migrants who didn’t make it, got stranded, human-trafficked or kidnapped along the way or drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. That all happened when we had students there, and we were seeing the face of Europe change.”

Koenig worked with Paolo Nardi of Cometa and Michael Williams, retired professor of journalism at KU, to conduct interviews in June 2019, write a study and present findings at the European Research Network Vocational Education and Training Conference. 

While all of the participants described experiencing trauma during their journey, their individual experiences were not fully considered as part of the training at Cometa, the researchers found. Such vocational training programs often have dropout rates as high as 30 to 40%.

Koenig, who was a practicing social worker at veterans’ hospitals prior to entering academia, said that is largely due to a lack of consideration of participants’ journey, where they are from and how such factors affect a person’s ability to work in a new society.

“It’s almost like the person is devoid from the training. These young people had seen violence, been trafficked, had fallen into slavery and been forced to work for almost nothing,” Koenig said. “It’s taken many of them as long as four years to make their journey because of all these hardships. I didn’t realize going in just how dramatic and traumatic their journeys were.”

The findings are not intended as a criticism of Italy's vocational training but instead as a way to help those working with refugees to improve their success rate. While social work with refugees is newer in Italy and much of Europe, Cometa staff and local officials showed commitment to improve their services. Participants reported awareness of Europe’s longtime role in colonialism, war and economic policies that have driven many in Africa to seek refuge. They also indicated a desire to help because inaction would only lead to further misunderstandings and potentially violence between Italian locals and refugees.

The case study with Cometa indicated the importance of training refugees in the local language, providing social support, identifying barriers to the job market and the social exclusion participants experienced. Several of the participants shared success stories in receiving job training, language education and social and family support. Participants have successfully landed jobs in Como’s hospitality industry as well as work in printing and textiles. 

Koenig said she hoped to return to Como on sabbatical and follow up with the participants who shared their stories and see how well they have fared, as well as to work further with local citizens to better understand how the two can work together.

“Their journeys were punctuated by violence, but they were also punctuated by kindness,” Koenig said. “There were also a lot of moments of awakening the young people spoke about, where they became conscious, or aware of the situation around them and became more understanding of violence and discriminatory realities. We have to be able to acknowledge who these young people are, where they are from and their experiences to help them integrate into society. It’s not just about learning skills, it’s the emotional and social adjustment as well, and I think that’s the case everywhere.”

Top image credit: Terry Koenig, Michael Williams