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Innovations in Social Work: Social Work Brings Trauma-Informed Care to Border Studies Program
By Lindsey Getz
Social Work Today
Vol. 23 No. 1 P. 32

Understanding the complexities surrounding immigration can be quite a different experience when seeing it firsthand as opposed to merely learning about it in the classroom. That was the case for students from Boston University’s (BU) Mexico-US Border Studies Program, who had the opportunity to travel to the Rio Grande Valley to see the border wall and meet migrants in the region. The program, which was part of the universitywide Initiative on Forced Displacement, now known as the Center on Forced Displacement, immersed students in the day-to-day needs of migrants in that area, which encompasses Brownsville and McAllen, Texas, as well as Matamoros and Reynosa, Mexico.

Luz M. López, PhD, a school of social work clinical professor and director of the Global Health Core at the Center for Innovation in Social Work & Health (CISWH), accompanied students on the trip. Social work was brought into the effort as it became apparent that the migrants had trauma care mental health needs that required addressing, she says.

“This was a wonderful collaboration of faculty and students from diverse disciplines such as the College of Art and Sciences, School of Law, Engineering, Questrom School of Business, and our graduate School of Social Work, among others. We enriched one another,” López says. “We learned from one another’s strengths and varied perspectives, and the students benefit from that.”

Interdisciplinary collaboration, peer-to-peer learning, and firsthand immersion make this a unique program that helps students have a better understanding of the issues related to migration, Lopez says. Project-based research and discussions are also a significant part of the program. According to the program description, students are encouraged to think practically, compassionately, and imaginatively about the complex challenge of migration and forced displacement.

Preparing for the Trip
Prior to the trip to Rio Grande Valley, which took place in Spring 2022, students participated in readings, discussions, and predeparture intensive seminars. Topics ranged from the history of US immigration policy to migrant health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We studied the history and migration patterns in that part of the region, the Central American cultures (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua) and others, and some of the reasons the migrants might be leaving their homeland and making this journey,” López says. “We also talked about the ethical issues—and how we can prepare students to understand the complexities of migration, so they can analyze the situation through a nonjudgmental lens.”

Nine students in the program then traveled to the Rio Grande Valley and, while there, volunteered with a number of nonprofit organizations supporting the migrants. These included the Refugee Services of Texas, Rio Valley Relief Project, Team Brownsville, the Humanitarian Respite Center, La Posada Providencia, and La Unión del Pueblo Entero.

According to López, students experienced first-hand what life is like for migrants who have ended up in transitional housing camps here. They also had the opportunity to interact with migrants and volunteers and learn their perspectives. It was a highly immersive experience that opened students’ eyes.

“Our partnership with organizations that are already on the ground helping migrants, allowed students to get involved with their various needs,” López explains. “Many of these migrants have nothing but the clothes they came in so there are a lot of immediate needs.”

The Social Work Perspective
Certainly, some of those needs were also related to PTSD and mental health. Because faculty wanted to ensure that students were prepared to work with migrants who experienced trauma before and during their journeys, López brought the “Social Work Perspective” to students by holding a seminar about trauma-informed care ahead of their trip.

In that seminar, López says, students discussed the following four key factors:

• premigration circumstances, including economic, social, and predeparture trauma;

• coping strategies dealing with family separation and grief;

• trauma during the journey; and

• migrants’ strengths and resilience.

“We emphasize being open when meeting migrants, how to ask questions, and how to engage in conversation without triggering them during that interaction,” López explains. “We also talked about how to connect migrants to other services. One gap that we hope our BU School of Social Work CISWH can fill is the need for more consultancy and resources in trauma and mental health.”

Many of these migrants already have experienced violence and trauma before they even leave for their journey, López says. In fact, it’s often this trauma that serves as the catalyst for leaving in the first place.

“Even so, there are typically many difficult days that follow that decision to leave their home and family,” López says. “The journey itself can be very traumatic. “Many may walk for weeks or go in crowded cars or buses while they cross. This might include going from Nicaragua to Honduras, then to Guatemala, with the final destination being the Mexico border and United States.”

They experience a variety of trials along the way, she adds.

“Some may have older children they left in the care of grandparents while they are traveling with their little ones,” Lopez says. “Others may travel alone, leaving their whole family behind in the hopes they will cross the border to the USA, find a job, and send money home. There is so much stress that has already been experienced, so we try to develop relationships and see how we can provide support as social workers and treat migrants with dignity and respect. They are not criminals, as we hear in antimigrant rhetoric and social media unjust narratives. Instead, they are hard-working and very determined individuals.”

A Continued Effort
This was much more than a once-and-done experience. López says that they plan to collaborate with the organizations and offer consultancy and training for some of the volunteers already working in the region on trauma response and on ways to connect migrants with additional services.

“We hope that they’ll continue and expand some of the trauma care approaches,” she says. “Since this program is continuing, we also will stay in touch with some of the families that we have met.”

While López was brought into this collaboration to provide social work services and collaborate in the preparation of students to work with the migrants, she says that from a personal perspective, she was inspired to get involved.

“Personally, this was something I wanted to do to be able to serve the Latino community and use my own cultural Puerto Rican background and Spanish language to connect with the migrant families,” she says.

López has continued to provide translation services and work with some of the families over Zoom since returning from this trip.

In addition, at press time, the 2023 program was getting underway. The Mexico-US Border Studies Program has planned its travel and service-intensive returning to the Mexico border in Rio Grande Valley, Texas, from March 4 to 12, 2023. As the number of displaced families increases and they are forced to migrate to the United States, social workers have a key role advocating for migrants’ rights and more access to trauma-informed care. López says having graduate level social work students participating and contributing to this interdisciplinary educational program will better prepare them to serve migrants and refugees and to be leaders in global health equity.

— Lindsey Getz is an award-winning freelance writer in Royersford, Pennsylvania.