Resilience, Support, and Empowerment: Experience from Community-based Research

June 16, 2021

Bio: Akiko Ohta is a PhD student in Languages, Cultures and Literacies and a member of the SFU Mental Health Services Research Lab. She was recently an Evaluation Lead for a pilot project supporting Government-Assisted-Refugee mothers in Canada and has also worked on rural community development in several Islamic countries. Akiko is particularly interested in approaches that support refugee mothers’ individual challenges and complexities, enabling them to feel a sense of belonging in their new home and empowering them to pursue a future.

You have extensive field experience in working with different communities around the world. Is this something that made you interested working with refugee mothers in Canada?

It certainly has.  I have always been passionate about working with local communities. In the desert area of Morocco, I worked with women’s associations to create income-generating projects, raise awareness in public health, and organize adult literacy class in villages. In Bangladesh and Thailand, I worked for UNESCO as an intern to revitalize community learning centres as a hub in rural areas for local people. Women were encouraged to learn new skills to expand their interests and capabilities, and children who had to drop out of school for various reasons could take classes there to fill educational gaps and go back to school again.

More recently, in Lebanon close to the Syrian border, I worked for refugee families who crossed the border to Lebanon. My main role at United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was to coordinate Syrian children’s smooth transition to public school in Lebanon in partnership with the Lebanese Ministry of Education and UNICEF. It was 2015 when I was there; things were very chaotic as the influx of refugees was growing larger, and the political situations were unstable. We were doing our best to ensure the minimum needs of the refugees were met.

I was so lucky to be reconnected with refugee families through the pilot refugee mothers’ project in Canada.  My experience in Lebanon left me with regrets about how little I could do for them in those chaotic situations. However, here in Canada, refugee families are more protected and supported in communities. I was excited to support their journey through this project upon arriving in Canada.

Community-based research sites and people Akiko worked with in Bangladesh, Thailand, Morocco, and Canada

What are some of the challenges in working with communities and/or community partners in community-based research projects? 

I was involved in a two-year project to externally evaluate a pilot program for refugee mothers. I would like to thank my doctoral supervisor, Dr. Masahiro Minami, for letting me lead such an important project, for encouraging me and trusting my work throughout the project. In planning the evaluation, I set the periods for data collection, data coding, data analysis, and accordingly writing. However, in communities, things are evolving every day and the community partners were flexibly adjusting the contents of the program to meet the needs of the participants. I felt I would never keep up with what was happening on site as an external researcher. To help meet this challenge, I added more interviews than planned to catch up with updates.

An internal researcher would have made daily updates and organization easier. But an external evaluator brings university-trained research expertise into the area of study as well as more objective observation and analysis.

Can you please share your experiences of working as an evaluator with this program? What have you learnt from this project?

It was such a pleasant experience working with the partner organizations: Mothers Matter Centre and ISSofBC. Their staff members are very passionate about what they do and truly care for the people they serve. When I was at ISSofBC for interviews or observation, I was included  in colleagues’ surprise birthday celebrations a few times. Their working atmosphere was very accommodating, and it made me feel as if I worked, or wanted to work, there too!

In terms of my learning through this evaluation experience, it was eye-opening to me to witness refugee mothers’ resilience, strength, and hope. The program and the evaluation were continued through COVID-19, so the refugee mothers had multiple challenges as they were still very new to Canada. Some of them were single-parenting or had handicapped family members. Despite the difficulties, what they shared during the Zoom interviews made me realize not only their resilience to overcome difficulties but also how they cared for others in difficulties. I even felt I was empowered by them as I was going through personal difficulties at that time. It is important to highlight their life stories: not only to identify their needs for improving the support system, but also to learn from their strength, which can empower our society as a whole.

What would you consider important when doing community- based research? Please share some of your insights for students and emerging scholars interested in this type of research.

In community-based research, it is important that the community participants benefit from the collaboration. If it is community-based participatory action research, the community participants take a central role to keep the research going for the sake of their own community. Even if the research is for external evaluation, such as the project I was involved in, I tried to be mindful of the meaning of participation from their point of view. Using the photovoice method was one way of allowing them to reflect on their experience through the program and think ahead about their continuing journey. Photovoice is a visual research methodology enabling participants to share their inner thoughts and voice and help them talk about their experiences.

For those who are interested in community-based research, I would suggest getting involved with an attitude to learn from your communities, build a trusted relationship, and enjoy the research process together.