Settlement, Integration, and Stress: A five year longitudinal study of Syrian Newcomer Mothers and Teens in the GTA is a large, longitudinal study conducted with Syrian refugee parents and adolescents in the Greater Toronto Area.

Two-thirds of Syrian refugee newcomers to Canada are children under the age of 18 or the adults caring for them. Not only are these newcomer children and their parents confronting the significant challenges involved in adjusting to life in Canada, they are doing so at stages in life—adolescence and parenthood—that are key to identity formation. The present-day context into which Syrian refugees arrive in Canada is also uniquely fraught with identity-related stigmas. These include an uptick in anti-Muslim bias in North America (Kazemipur 2014; Korteweg and Selby 2012), a wider global backlash against multiculturalism (Kymlicka 2010), and evidence of felt discrimination among refugees in Canada (Kyriakides et al. 2018; Satzewich 2015).

Professor Neda Maghbouleh leads a team of 3 faculty researchers, 1 postdoctoral fellow, and 10 student research assistants in a longitudinal study that grapples with these issues. The team and project is called RISE: Refugee Integration, Stress, and Equity.

The project has funding from a 2018-2023 SSHRC Insight Grant for which Maghbouleh serves as PI and from the Early Researcher Award that Maghbouleh received from the Province of Ontario in 2018.

The project focuses on how Syrian refugee mothers and teens experience family and integration-related stressors in the three to five years following settlement, studying identity formation as well as refugee settlement, family life, integration, and wellbeing. The project uses a longitudinal research design to capture both (a) phenomenological changes over time and (b) distinct, time-sensitive observations. It involves multiple waves of Arabic-language interviews, surveys, and community- and team-based participatory action research with ~50 newcomer households and with two partner agencies.

The project launched in the fall of 2018; the team is currently engaged in the first wave of data collection and will shortly begin coding data. It then anticipates annual waves of data collection for the next five years. This will see the majority of the adolescent participants into young adulthood and observe their parents move through the stages of parenting. In 2022, the team will apply for funding to extend the study for further waves to learn about the development of racial identity formation as the participants move further from their initial move to Canada and as they progress through the life course.

As of May 2019, the team has succeeded in recruiting 129 participants from 51 households in Peel and Toronto regions. In Peel region, Dixie Bloor Neighbourhood Centre (DBNC), a leading newcomer settlement agency in Mississauga with whom RISE previously partnered in their pilot project, is facilitating recruitment. In the Toronto region, Syrian Canadian Foundation and NMC Cultural Exchange and Support Initiative (NMC)—two grassroots, Syrian-led organizations—are helping facilitate recruitment. To ensure adequate diversity of the sample in terms of sponsorship status and other key variables, the study will aim to match in proportion government versus privately sponsored refugees.

Research assistants administer a survey to participants in Arabic and then conduct 90-minute semi-structured interviews, also in Arabic. The survey contains items to identify stressors that undermine refugee parents’ wellbeing and the social and personal resources that may buffer the strains experienced in their sense of parenting and family membership. It also includes items related to identity-based stigma faced by refugee adults and, in the case of teenage participants, items based on the adolescent discrimination distress index to measure stressors and possible negative stigma mediating younger refugees’ integration to Canada. The interviews include questions about people’s backgrounds and their family composition; stressors and strains linked to child(ren)’s adjustment in school; discrimination in social fields like school, neighbourhood, and community organizations; support resources; and self concepts. The interviewers discuss with participants their lives before landing in Canada (including their identities and experiences as parents or teenagers); their experiences during early settlement, especially in terms of role identity and wellbeing; and “telling cases” that capture achievements and obstacles to their sense of belonging and integration. Annual follow-up interviews and continuous community engagement activities between the research team and the study population will reveal crucial, longitudinal insights about integration, family-related stress over time, and shifting narratives of identity.

In addition to the survey and interviews, RISE team engages in a variety of team-based participatory action research (PAR) activities to further explore issues of integration and identity formation. For example, two newcomer study participants have thus far joined RISE in scholarly partnership as co-panelists in a special session at the annual meeting of the Canadian Sociological Association and an additional participant has recently joined RISE Team as a paid research trainee. Several other participants have been commissioned to help RISE convene two community-building celebrations for local Syrian newcomer families, our University, and partner agencies. The team will continue to engage those study participants who are keen to join academic, policy, and community research dissemination efforts; additional PAR-led activities in focus group discussion and leadership are anticipated to begin in Winter 2020.

Through its longitudinal strategy, the project offers more than a one-time snapshot: it follows newcomers’ evolving identities, troubles, and successes.

Through a community-based and inclusive approach, RISE Team shares lessons—from participants in their own words—about parenting, coming of age, identity, racialization, and forging strong selves through crisis.