Addressing mental health challenges refugee children face

By Brianna Canada

Many refugee children live in North Hill and attend school together. Photo by Andrew Kuder

Refugee children not only help to shape their community by helping their parents adapt to American culture, but they also educate non-refugee children and teens about refugee cultures and countries. 

School, friends, and being social can be stressful on any child. Refugee children experience a unique set of circumstances that add to the stress they already feel to fit in. 

Rollin Mukanza, a social worker and community coordinator at the International Institute of Akron, helps refugee children adjust to American culture. A social worker and community coordinator, Mukanza is one of many people responsible for setting up mental health screenings and services both in the community and the schools to help refugee children adapt and manage their mental health.

“In my field, I have worked with more adults than children, simply because most refugees that come to Akron have families with small children who are too young to understand what’s going on,” he said. “However, there are still a significant number of older children or teens that have the added stress of adjusting themselves and their families into our culture.”

Mukanza explained that some children have come to the states without one or both parents. In countries that have threats against women, a lot of times the mom is told to flee without the dad because it’s too dangerous for both mom and child to stay. In Afghanistan, for instance, the Taliban were killing women for going to school, speaking out and having jobs. While men who worked in journalism or in political offices were threatened, the threat was greater to women. Therefore, women started gathering their children and fleeing to the US while the fathers either stayed to fight or stayed for other family members.

“It can be extremely hard on these children who have to step in as placement for the lost parent. They’re trying to feel like a regular teenager or child but they can’t because they’re busy playing parent and child, trying to adjust to their new lifestyle,”

Rollin mukanza

With refugee children and teens trying to adjust to a new school and country while also helping their parents adjust, there are programs that can help. For instance, ASIA-ICHC is dedicated to delivering health aid to all people in Akron and Cleveland, including children and teens. They deliver substance abuse services and general therapy to combat the mounting stress all refugees may feel. The program has been recognized as a useful resource in aiding refugees because of the economic and language barriers they break. One of the most useful strategies has been the support groups created by refugees for  refugees from the same country. 

As more refugee children and teens enter Akron, IIA has been making mental health screenings and aid as readily available as possible. One person on the forefront of this effort is Edlyn McGarity, community coordinator at the International Welcome Center in Akron. 

“When the refugees come through the welcome center, we make sure they feel welcomed and at ease about their journey into Akron’s culture,” she said. “I see a lot of families who have plenty of children, and while we understand the stress the parent might be in, we also understand that the children will be stressed as well.”

McGarity works with refugees to find the best social services for them, especially if they feel the children need it. She also advocates for mental health services being offered in all Akron schools, especially in the North Hill area that has so many refugees. Schools such as North Hill International School group refugee children together to make it easier for them to adjust.