Duke Students and Faculty Team Up with Refugee Youth for Citizenship Lab


Every year, the United States resettles between 50,000 and 80,000 refugees. North Carolina ranks tenth in the country for the number of refugees it takes in, and in the past three years, more than 2,500 refugees from countries such as Bhutan, Burma, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan have settled in the Raleigh-Durham area. They face the daily challenges of adjusting to new environments, cultures and languages while struggling to navigate access to resources, jobs, education and social support.

Citizenship Lab is a Bass Connections project team that’s developing ways for these refugees, particularly middle school and high school youth, to engage in civic participation in Durham. Comprised of Duke faculty, graduate students and undergraduates, the team partners with 30 refugee youth.

The project set out to “encourage refugees to be more active participants in their communities,” says Elizabeth Tsui, a team member of the Citizenship Lab and a junior biology major at Duke.

“What we’re trying to help them achieve,” adds another member of the team, doctoral student Alexandra Oprea, “are the tools to have power or efficacy in their community.” She says that the project also aims to help them prepare for the future, such as careers or college. But even beyond that, she hopes that the Citizenship Lab can prepare them “for being members of a community that can vote, that can protest, that can participate and shape the community according to their needs.”

What we’re trying to help them achieve are the tools to have power or efficacy in their community, on the one hand, to be able to do well in school to prepare for a future career, hopefully college-readiness. And on the other hand, to prepare for being members of a community that can vote, that can protest, that can participate and shape the community according to their needs.

In addition to helping the refugees integrate into their new environment, members of the Citizenship Lab team are exploring the impact the program has on the civic participation of migrant youth and the broader relationship between social science research engagement and citizenship. This work is animated by a cluster of questions:

  • What civic traditions and practices do refugee youth bring with them and how are they deployed in the United States?
  • When popular forms of American civic participation—e.g., voting and volunteering—are not immediately viable for refugees, what new civic forms may be possible?
  • What is the relationship between problem-centered social science research and citizenship?
  • How do we measure the effectiveness of teaching citizenship via this pragmatic social science research method?

This work doesn’t come without challenges. Team member Reed McLaurin, a sophomore public policy major, talks about the initial difficulty of trying to bridge the chasm between himself and refugee students who have been thrust into a new world. Finding common ground when the two sides are separated by culture, language and life experiences can be elusive. But he points out how rewarding it can be when that gap is closed: “One girl in particular that I was doing a lot of my work with was very quiet and reserved. But after several weeks she said, ‘I’m really going to miss you and I can’t wait for next week.’ That was the first week that I really had affirmation from her that she was seeing this as more than just a tool to enhance her future. It was a real friendship.”

Watch the video, learn more about Citizenship Lab: Civic Participation of Refugee Youth in Durham and find out how to get involved in Bass Connections. Additional support for this project is provided by the Silver Family Kenan Institute for Ethics Fund in Support of Bass Connections.