A one-day summit sponsored by APA and the American Psychological Foundation showed high school students how psychologists and other social scientists work with refugees.

How does an American anthropologist blend in with an Indonesian culture? How would a Western psychologist help a community heal after civil war? What do demographers, geographers and economists add to refugee relief efforts? How do journalists cover refugees' stories?

Talented high school students explored these questions with social scientists from all five of these disciplines at the Young Scholars Social Science Summit, held Oct. 24 at APA headquarters.

The meeting, a Decade of Behavior event organized by APA's Esther Katz Rosen Center for Gifted Education Policy and the American Psychological Foundation, drew together more than 60 Washington, D.C., area high school students, their teachers and an expert panel of social scientists to explore how the social sciences approach the world refugee crisis.

"Most high school social studies courses tend to focus on factual information and seldom expose students to research undertaken by social scientists," says conference co-organizer Osa Brand, educational outreach director at the National Council for Geographic Education. "By encouraging students to interact with active researchers, I think this conference made them aware of career possibilities that they have not previously considered."

At the summit, experts from each of the five disciplines represented--psychology, demography, geography, anthropology and economics--talked about their work with refugees and why they chose their field, and then answered students' questions in small group sessions.

"In a very real sense, this event [was] a microcosm of the multidisciplinary dialogue and approach that is needed to provide comprehensive supports for refugees," says psychologist Michael Wessells, PhD, who spoke at the summit. "The problems facing refugees and displaced people are inherently transdisciplinary. Along with psychosocial assistance, refugees need legal and physical protection, help meeting basic needs for food, shelter and essential items, and support in building their own positive future."

Refugee psychology

Representing psychology at the summit were Wessells, a professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., and Deanna Beech, PhD, a former military psychologist and treasurer of Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

Beech volunteered in Bosnia-Herzegovina after the war to resolve property claim disputes; the conflict had displaced many people who moved into the vacant homes of others. In her work with the Commission for Real Property Claims, she strengthened the commission's polling methodology, and found that only about 30 percent of citizens wanted to return to their homes--a far cry from the 70 percent that previous polling had found. The results helped the commission realize that forcing people back to their old homes and towns could cause them to feel as if they were experiencing ethnic cleansing--when the nation's ethnic-minorities were driven from their homes and often killed--all over again, she said.

Wessells, who has provided relief services in Sierra Leone, East Timor, Afghanistan and other war-torn countries, emphasized the importance of respecting refugees' cultural beliefs. He explained that, in many of the countries where he has worked, people don't share their feelings with strangers--which means traditional Western approaches to treating trauma, such as one-on-one counseling, usually aren't effective.

Instead, Wessells might recruit local healers to purify the spirit of child soldiers who believe their actions have made them contaminated, or encourage women to restart an old sewing group so they have an outlet to talk about their experiences.

On the front lines

In addition to an overview of the different social sciences, the summit featured two journalists who have covered refugee crises--Baltimore Sun reporter Mark Matthews and Newsweek correspondent Roy W. Gutman.

Gutman, whose reports on ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina won him the 1993 Pulitzer Prize, told students that a reporter's job is to "write about things that should not be happening." He recounted how being barred from a southern Serbia town spurred him to investigate what was happening inside. His persistent reporting eventually revealed that ethnic-minority Muslims were being killed or driven from the town. His article alerted the public to the mass killings, which he and his editors termed, for the first time, "ethnic cleansing."

Gutman also criticized reporters' failure to cover similar actions in Afghanistan in 1998, when as many as 5,000 people were executed in three days. Many reporters said the story was too hard to cover, he said. But Gutman countered that it's a reporter's obligation to tell the story anyway.

"Don't give it up. If any of you become journalists or if you go into the human rights field or do anything else," Gutman told the students, "that's got to be your motto...not to take 'no' for an answer when something terrible is happening."

Further Reading

For more information on the summit, visit the Center for Gifted Education Policy.