Citizenship Lab: Civic Participation of Refugee Youth in Durham (2015-2016)

The United States resettles between 50,000 to 80,000 refugees annually. More than half of these are women and children. North Carolina ranks tenth in the country in terms of refugee resettlement. In the past three years 2,500 refugees, predominantly from Bhutan, Burma and Iraq but also from Sudan, Somalia and elsewhere were resettled in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. Resettlement poses numerous challenges for refugees whose history of violent displacement together with cultural and linguistic barriers often makes access to resources, jobs, education and social support difficult. Refugees also face substantial barriers to full participation in the life of their communities, and initial evidence is that they have significantly lower lifetime levels of civic engagement.

How do refugee youth create a meaningful and dignified life after resettlement to the United States? How can youth civic engagement programs promote a robust sense of citizenship and improve college readiness among refugee youth? This Bass Connections project team brought together Duke faculty and students to explore these questions with 30 refugee youth who attend Sherwood Githens Middle School, Jordan High School and Riverside High School.

In Fall 2015 the Duke students led a scavenger hunt with the refugee youth on Duke’s West Campus, including the Chapel, the Edge, the Foundry and the Bryan Center. These locations encompass the academic, social and religious elements that define the life of a Duke student and the Duke community as a whole. In order to learn more about the differences in supermarkets in neighborhoods across Durham, the team split into smaller groups and engaged in participant observation at Dollar General, al-Taiba Halal Market, Whole Foods, Durham Co-op and Harris Teeter. Next, the youth interviewed various Duke students riding the bus between East and West Campus about what they liked about Duke as well as what problems they saw, in order to learn about the challenges and opportunities that exist on campus and to practice their question-forming, filming and public-speaking skills.

When local elections took place in Durham, the student team members helped the youth to research the candidates for mayor and city council to see what their stances were on issues particular to young Durham citizens. They visited the local polling station at Watts Elementary School and made their voices heard through the Kids Voting program. Though these votes did not technically count, this was a valuable exercise in electing leaders that represent our views through the democratic process.

Throughout the year, guests such as Durham City Council member Steve Schewel, Duke's Imam and Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries engaged with the youth on various topics. In Spring 2016 the team partnered with the youth to produce a Photovoice exhibition on the theme of community.


Fall 2015 – Spring 2016

Team Outcomes

Catherine Ward and Louden Richason, Education as a Human Right: Educational Transitions for Refugees in a Third World Resettlement Context, 2018 Koonz Prize for Best Essay

Children or Citizens: Civic Education in Liberal Political Thought (Political Science dissertation by Alexandra Oprea, 2017)

Community Is and Can Be (exhibition and event at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, April 26, 2016)

EHDx Talks (presentation by Elizabeth Wilkinson at the Nasher Museum of Art, April 13, 2016)

Citizenship Lab: Civic Participation of Refugee Youth in Durham (poster by Elizabeth Tsui, Maha Ahmed, Elizabeth Wilkinson, Reed McLaurin, Snehan Sharma, Catherine Farmer, Maura Smyles and Alexandra Oprea presented at the Nasher Museum of Art, April 13, 2016)

Tools for Change Bus Interviews (video)

Tools for Change (project website)


Citizenship Lab: Community Is and Can Be

Citizenship Lab at Duke University


Alexandra Oprea, PhD in Political Science

Reed McLaurin ’18

Maha Ahmed ’18

Elizabeth Tsui ’17

Elizabeth Wilkinson ’18

This Team in the News

From Durham to Canberra, Exploring the Moral and Political Status of Children

These Ph.D. Graduates Played Key Roles in Their Bass Connections Projects

Announcing the 2018 Koonz Prize Winners

Duke University Senior Honored for Community Service

Meet the Members of the Bass Connections Student Advisory Council

What Community Is, and Can Be, for Refugee Youth in Durham

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

Three Bass Connections Alums Named as Kenan Graduate Fellows

The Week at Duke {in 60 Seconds}

New Bass Connections Citizenship Lab Links Refugees with Durham

This project team was originally part of the Education & Human Development theme of Bass Connections, which ended in 2022. See earlier related team, Displacement, Resettlement and Global Mental Health (2013-2014).

What I’ve really enjoyed about this experience is being able to see a lot of the kids grow. From the very beginning it was a little chaotic but as time has gone on they’ve gotten a lot more serious about it. They’re really opening up to us about deeper experiences. –Elizabeth Tsui

Bass Connections is a great opportunity to get out into the world. –Reed McLaurin

Additional support for this project was provided by the Silver Family Kenan Institute for Ethics Fund in Support of Bass Connections.

Team Leaders

  • Nadia El-Shaarawi, Kenan Institute for Ethics
  • Suzanne Shanahan, Kenan Institute for Ethics|Arts & Sciences-Sociology
  • William Tobin, Kenan Institute for Ethics

/graduate Team Members

  • Alexandra Oprea, Political Science-AM, Political Science-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Maha Ahmed, Int Comparative Studies (AB), Asian & Mid East Studies (AB2)
  • Aidan Coleman, Public Policy Studies (AB), Economics (BS2)
  • Catherine Farmer, Mechanical Engineering (BSE)
  • Reed McLaurin, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Snehan Sharma, History (AB)
  • Maura Smyles, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Elizabeth Tsui, Biology (BS)
  • Elizabeth (Dibet) Wilkinson, Public Policy Studies (AB), Global Health (AB2)