Interview with Dr. Rachel Kronick and project coordinator Rosy Kuftedjian – The implementation of “Welcome Haven”
Yufei (Mandy) Wu is a second-year Masters student in the Division of Social and Transcultural Psychiatry, under the supervision of Dr. Rachel Kronick. Her research will be integrated within the Welcome Haven project and will examine how asylum-seeking mothers experience their agency and wellbeing during their resettlement process, and how attending a community-based psychosocial support program shapes their self-efficacy, resettlement stress, and wellbeing. She has previously received her BA in Honours Psychology at McGill. As an immigrant herself, she looks forward to working with and learning from refugee claimants, community partners, and other researchers to empower the migrant community in Canada and beyond.
Rosy Kuftedjian is an artist, social activist and drama therapist. In Lebanon, she worked with Catharsis, a non-profit organization that introduces drama therapy to incarcerated people and was involved in prison reform and advocacy. She is currently the research coordinator for the Welcome Haven project, bringing forth from Beirut her interest in supporting the experience of those with refugee and migrant worker status. Here in Montreal, she also currently practices as a drama therapist, working primarily with children and families.
Dr. Rachel Kronick is a clinician-scientist (FRSQ Chercheur-boursier clinicien, Junior 1) based at the Sherpa and Lady Davis Research Institutes. She is an assistant professor affiliated with the Division of Social and Transcultural Psychiatry of McGill University. Her clinical work as a child and psychiatrist is based at the Centre for Child Development and Mental Health at the Jewish General Hospital where she provides outpatient care. Her research has looked at immigration policy and its consequences for children and families, with a specific focus on immigration detention. Currently her research interest is participatory-action research with asylum-seeking communities to develop and implement ecosocial mental health interventions, hence the “Welcome Haven” program.
Interview by: Yufei (Mandy) Wu
Mandy Wu (MW): Will you start by briefly describing the Welcome Haven program and the expected impact of this community-based psychosocial support program on asylum seekers’ mental health?
Dr. Rachel Kronick (Rachel): The Welcome Haven project was conceived out of the realization that there are increasing numbers of asylum seekers1 in Montreal with inadequate resources. There are wonderful resources that exist, but not the volume required to match their mental health needs. This project is meant to bring psychosocial and mental health support to asylum seekers in their communities in an easily accessible way, especially for families and parents with children.
The idea is that on a weekly basis, we will host drop-in spaces in the community, such as at community organizations and church basements, where families can come have a communal meal together. Parents will receive support, whether it be informational workshops, meeting with a social worker, or sitting together in a sewing circle. At the same time, young children will have enriching childcare, and school-aged children will be able to engage in creative expression workshops. In this way, we aim to build a sense of community and social connectedness through participation in the program, which will serve as an upstream intervention to prevent isolation and lack of access to resources that will lead to economic and health disparities, and eventually mental health problems.
MW: Having launched this September, the Welcome Haven program had been in preparation for a year and already received some funding. How has the implementation process been? Specifically, will you describe some of the challenges you have faced in seeking funding and collaborating with other nonprofit community organizations?
Rachel: We are very fortunate to have the SSHRC Insight grant, which is funding the research component of the project, because not only do we want to implement the program, we want to study its implementation. We want to understand what the program does for families and the barriers and opportunities for implementation of such a program. It is a bit of a no–brainer that such a program is a good idea, but why does this type of program not exist yet? What are the barriers in our system? So, we are very fortunate to have that SSHRC funding that is allowing us to study the implementation process of this program.
There have been massive barriers to implementing the project. First, the COVID-19 pandemic slowed down our original vision that involved people gathering and eating together and being physically proximal to each other. Even though we can now gather in person, we continue to face the challenge of only being able to serve very small groups of people in each session because of the need for social distancing.
Another challenge is putting a complex program together on a shoestring budget, because although the research component of the study was funded, the actual implementation of the program and its associated administrative costs are largely not accounted for in the grant. We have very limited resources, as do the community organizations we are collaborating with. Everyone is stretched thin, everyone is under-funded, so how can we pool our resources to make something that’s bigger than all of us?
Rosy Kuftedjian (Rosy): To further Rachel’s point, although there is a lot of funding for COVID related projects, there is tension between the COVID rules and the type of program activities that are allowed to happen. For example, a lot of organizations are really worried about the space and how many people we can host.
Another issue is that there are few organizations that have funding to provide services for the asylum-seeking population. Some organizations we contacted just said that, sadly, the government does not want to fund activities for asylum seeking families, because they have no official status in Canada.
MW: Can you also speak to the opportunities that arise when you are looking for partnerships with community organizations?
Rosy: When we are looking for organizations to collaborate with, we reach out to organizations that have existing resources, such as a space and their own programs, so that when we bring in the Welcome Haven program, our participants are automatically connected to their services.
Rachel: Some community organizations have been really delighted because they wanted to offer this kind of programming, but they didn’t have the resources to do it. This gives us an opportunity to build on their mandate of serving a multicultural community and breaking isolation. We are thus offering something that they wouldn’t be able to do on their own, since our team is made up of clinicians with mental health expertise and researchers, which is a novel model.
MW: Other than existing resources, what are some other priorities when looking for collaborations with non-profit organizations in the implementation process?
Rosy: I think flexibility around COVID policies is a main priority. One example of an organization we collaborated with was that, after we did the first workshop, they were worried about participants not putting on masks during the communal meal, because their vaccination status was unknown. We hope the organizations we collaborate with understand the social benefit of participants sharing a meal, and that as essential services we can’t check their vaccine passport. We expect the organizations’ philosophy to align with our own, and that is of being understanding of this population’s unique needs if we want to help them.
MW: On that note, what do you think is the potential role of funding and philanthropy in the implementation of the Welcome Haven program? How could grantmaking foundations better support similar initiatives like ours?
Rachel: I think the idea of partnerships between research, federal funding agencies that are looking more at the research perspective, and philanthropic organizations that are able to flexibly fund different aspects of these projects are crucial. For example, we harnessed a lot of resources to fund the research, but finding the resources to fund the actual implementation continues to be more challenging. This is where we are drawing on private and philanthropic funding. Similarly, our partner non-profit organization, Welcome Collective, is mainly funded by philanthropic and private funding as well.
There is an enormous role that philanthropy can play in ultimately showing the public system, including public healthcare and social services, that these kinds of psychosocial programs are crucial and deserve even larger funding at the provincial and federal levels. Often philanthropists, or philanthropic grantmakers, can plant the seed to show what is needed in the public system.
MW: Yes absolutely, in fact one of our partners is Centre Greene, which, from my understanding, is a philanthropic organization?
Rosy: It is a non-profit organization. They have many programs and their philosophies align with ours. When we pitched our project, it so happened that the organizers at Centre Greene were writing a project where they wanted to do expressive art with groups and our program fits with their agenda. Centre Greene has a beautiful space and various programs that serve different populations including seniors and children. Their location is next to the YMCA, where a lot of asylum-seeking families temporarily stay when they first arrive. So, if there is an existing asylum-seeking population participating in their programs, then they can also participate in our workshops.
What is interesting is that when I first presented our project, they had to have a board meeting to decide whether they should work with refugees or asylum-seeking families. After someone did a presentation on the difference between asylum seekers and refugees, their board decided that they want to work with asylum-seeking families because they are more vulnerable.
MW: From your experience, Rachel, why are there not enough philanthropy initiatives for this population?
Rachel: I think part of it is the result of their precarious status. Refugee claimants tend to politically, publicly, and socially take up as little space as possible. They are not rallying on the streets for their rights. They are not doing interviews on television, because they are frightened and they feel if they put their necks out, they could jeopardize their claim or their families’ safety. So, there isn’t a lot of public awareness of the plights of asylum-seeking families in our communities and I think this population is just not on the radar for a lot of philanthropic organizations.
Rosy: There is also a lot of misunderstanding between the definition of a refugee, an asylum seeker, and an immigrant. If the concept was clarified to some degree, organizations would realize that they should devote resources to help asylum seekers, because refugees have permanent resident status so they already have access to a lot of services.
MW: From a clinician’s point of view, do you think this also results in a downplay on asylum seekers’ mental health?
Rachel: I think often, even in medical literature, we forget to acknowledge the very special needs of asylum seekers compared to refugees because asylum seekers are a precarious population that is in transit. Even though there is systematic research about asylum seekers, there’s less compared to the refugee population, just because it’s such a delicate, vulnerable, transitory population to study. I think there is a research gap, and it is getting filled as more and more asylum claimants come to Europe and North America so there is more awareness, but the gap remains.
MW: This study will contribute to filling that gap and helping enhance asylum seekers’ wellbeing. What is the next step for the Welcome Haven program now that we have more space and more support?
Rachel: For one, we want to scale up our project. Right now, we are offering biweekly workshops, but we want to ideally offer workshops weekly and to a bigger group of people. That scaling up process is going to involve accessing more resources and funds so we will be able to hire more coordination staff. So, we are currently in the process of better understanding the program and beginning to scale it up. Of course, we want to share what we are learning about this process with the public and the academic community. Our research is just launching now, but ultimately, I hope that this program will prove itself so important, especially if we manage to scale it up, that it’s going to be noticed by policy and decision makers in the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Immigration, for them to realize that this kind of program isn’t just a bonus and should be included in our fundamental services for asylum seekers.
Rosy: We also want to focus our program to fit asylum-seeking families’ needs and eventually engage asylum seekers so that they can take the initiative and lead workshops because they know best what they need.
MW: How will this participatory element impact asylum seekers’ mental health?
Rosy: The main issue for asylum seekers is that they don’t have control over their fate because they don’t have a status and they don’t know what’s going to happen, which is very confusing. So, if they can voice their needs and lead activities themselves, although this is not a lot of control, just a little bit of control over their fate will help them feel more comfortable.
Rachel: From eco–social models that consider the psychosocial pillars which get shattered for people after conflict and migration, two of the key pillars are a sense of identity and a sense of existential meaning. When people are put in a position where they can do meaningful work and make a contribution to their community, this role can result in social capital that will be protective of their mental health.
MW: That’s what my project is going to hopefully tap into as well. Final concluding thought, beyond this project, what do you envision for the future of our collective effort to protect newcomers’ mental health?
Rachel: We need to make sure that asylum seekers in general have access not only to specialized mental health services, which is critical and there will be a portion who will need very specialized mental health services, but also that we create enough preventative interventions and community-based interventions that people can have their basic needs for health and wellbeing met. We need both increased resources at the level of specialized intervention and preventative community-based interventions.
Rosy: I think for asylum seekers to be seen, that our society see that they are here, and they need these psychosocial support programs where they can feel connected.
MW: Thank you both so much for your time.