Beyond Education and Employment: Meeting Psychosocial Needs

A large proportion of newly arrived Central American children seeking refuge in the United States cite violence as the pivotal factor that led to their outmigration (UNHCR 2014). If violence is one of the major push factors propelling Central American youth to leave their homelands, integration efforts need to consider the effects of witnessing violence, being a victim of violence, and perpetrating violence on the well-being of the children and youth. Communities should devise a means to address these effects.

Many local programs are eager to dispatch mental health professionals to assist with the psychological scars resulting from abuse by gangs, smugglers, and family members. Service providers at Mary’s Center in Washington, DC, for example, believe that the large number of newly arrived Central American children in local schools is straining the system’s capacity for counseling and mental health therapy.

Pediatrician Alan Shapiro, cofounder of Terra Firma, shares similar concerns. Terra Firma is an innovative medical-legal partnership at the South Bronx Health Center in New York City designed to meet the complex medical, psychosocial, and legal needs of unaccompanied children and youth (Redlener 2014). Shapiro remarked: “Their life experience is marked by multiple traumas in their home countries, on their journey north and here in the US. As a society, it is our responsibility to heal them, not to compound the trauma” (Gold 2014b). As a result, Terra Firma started a holistic support program for the newly arrived unaccompanied children from Central America; it includes group therapy to deal with the effects of violence and psychosocial and sports activities to limit social isolation and to provide recreational opportunities.

The principles that underlie Terra Firmas approach are spreading. In Los Angeles, which received 2474 unaccompanied children from January through September of 2014, St. John’s Well Child and Family Center psychologists are asked to provide psychological assessments for use at immigration hearings (Gold 2014a). The clinic is also working with the children to prepare them to testify in court.

There is no doubt that some young people might benefit from individual and group counseling. Still, other approaches may be effective to supplement traditional mental health counseling. There is a growing body of literature critiquing the use of Western mental health approaches to alleviate the suffering of refugees, including children affected by armed conflict and violence (Summerfield 1999, 2000). Recreational activities, for example, can be beneficial. Latino boys in Washington, DC, mentioned that they deal with stress and domestic and gang violence by playing soccer. Sadly, girls in the same neighborhood indicated that they did not have similar outlets—joining a gym was not only financially prohibitive but also culturally alien.

There is a need to assess the suitability and effectiveness of youth programs for the newly arrived Central American youth, both boys and girls. Soccer without Borders, an academic and athletic program established in 2006, has been a great resource for immigrant and refugee children who have suffered trauma. The program operates in six cities in the United States: Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Greely, New York City, and Oakland. It helps youth bond across cultural divides and blossom as leaders in and out of the classroom.

Fugees Family is a similar organization in Clarkston, Georgia. Cofounded by Luma Mufleh and Tracy Edigar, the program is devoted to working with child survivors of war. The Fugees program works with 86 refugee boys and girls between the ages of 11 and 18 who attend twice-weekly soccer practices, play games on weekends, and participate in tournaments. The Fugees Family has an after-school tutoring program, a 57-student middle school called Fugees Academy, and ongoing community events (e.g., car washes and group meals). The Fugees hail from more than 24 war-torn countries around the world—that is, Burma, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Congo, and Eritrea (St. John 2007). These recreational activities, combined with academic tutoring and mentoring, go a long way towards alleviating the traumatic experiences of immigrant and refugee children and youth by facilitating integration among and between various youth groups in local communities.

Many advocates and service providers focus on “exit trauma,” or the violence young people experienced in their country of origin and/or en route to the United States. Yet, they may not focus sufficiently on preventing exposure of these same children to gang and domestic violence once they settle in local communities. If the prevalence rates of domestic violence in the home country hover around 20-25 %, will the same be true of the families and communities the children join in the United States?

According to the Latin@ Network, a national institute on domestic violence in Latino communities, 20-25 % of Latinas experience intimate partner violence in their lifetimes (National Compadres Network n.d.). Data obtained from the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect show that 22 % of children in Latino immigrant families experience physical abuse and 24 % are sexually abused. Risk factors include alcohol and drug abuse in the family, domestic violence, use of excessive discipline, lack of social support, high family stress, and difficulty meeting basic needs (Migration and Child Welfare National Network n.d.). Such risks should be mitigated. Protective factors (e.g., good parenting skills, conflict-resolution skills, and family and community support) should also be promoted to ensure the violence-free integration of newcomer youths.

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