Unaccompanied refugee children and adolescents have been my main field of research for the past 20 years. Always looking from the angle of their psychosocial wellbeing, my focus has slightly shifted over the years from looking at the impact of past trauma to more areas, including the role of risk and protective factors in the current living contexts of these young, separated refugees. In the last 10 years, also impacted by the terrifying stories I heard in my own clinical practice with refugees and from practitioners working with this group, I saw, even more, the strong detrimental impact of the ‘transit experiences’ these young refugees go through while trying to migrate from their homes to the/a host country in Europe.
Obtaining the ERC-Starting Grant ChildMove gave me the wonderful opportunity to study these ‘transit experiences’, to look at the impact of these events on young refugees’ wellbeing, and from there on to also try to create an impact and meaningful changes in policy and practice. This latter aspect – connecting research with policy and practice – has always been a key element of my research over the past two decades. The fact that the European Research Council (ERC), as a funding agency for ‘groundbreaking research’, aligned with this ‘policy focus’ as one of the main aims of the ChildMove-study further grounded and justified this fundamental aspect of my research work.
Since the ERC-SG ChildMove project took off, I have had the enormous luck to work with a fantastic team of researchers – Malte, Océane, Marina, Sarah, Ine, Floor and Giacomo. All of them are highly committed to their research and to their participants, which is in my view an absolute necessity in this challenging research design, where we listen to and document the stories of young refugees trying to build a new life while going through very difficult circumstances. Over and over again in all the individual talks with the researchers and in our team conversations, I have been struck by the researchers’ ability to feel both compassion and empathy with their participants, while at the same time, trying to understand the research findings from a certain distance. This is a contrast that is often difficult to remain in, especially when you get confronted with the diverse forms of violence that these young people face, violence that is often exerted by our ‘own’ (European) governments or even ‘own’ national(s) (government).
To quote Hannah Arendt:
“Comprehension does not mean denying the outrageous, deducing the unprecedented from precedents, or explaining phenomena by such analogies and generalities that the impact of reality and the shock of experience are no longer felt. It means, rather, examining and bearing consciously the burden which our century has placed on us — neither denying its existence nor submitting meekly to its weight. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality — whatever it may be” (Hannah Arendt, the Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951).
Working with a team and in co-supervision for the different PhDs is such an enormous strength – and even necessity – when doing such challenging research. This close collaboration and connections help to unveil our own blind spots, to set up our own networks of social support within the team, to always find someone who is able to respond to a WhatsApp-message in which one of the team members is asking for advice or just wants to express a story of frustration, pain, anger or joy when hearing back from a participant.
The diversity in our team is, therefore, a remarkable experience – not only do we bring in all kinds of different knowledge, experiences and views, but it also creates a fantastic atmosphere of respect and humour, in which cultural differences are always a thankful subject of small jokes, leading to a lot of laughter, accompanied with lots of food sharing and joyful moments in different parts in the world. As such, the teamwork is fundamental for all of us to find a strong equilibrium between compassion, empathy, frustration – and humour, resilience, rationalizing – thereby, creating space for moving forward and finding pathways to translating our findings into meaningful outputs, including ways to disseminate our findings to policy and practice.