UM Public Health Experts Are Key in a Swedish Effort to Integrate Refugee Youth

A unique partnership between University of Miami public health experts and the city of Stockholm plays a key role in supporting the health and emotional well-being of at-risk Afghan and Syrian refugee youth who have found their way from their troubled homelands to the Swedish capital.

The transatlantic connection stems from the city of Stockholm’s many years of use of Brief Strategic Family Therapy (BSFT), an evidence-based family intervention program developed by a team of UM researchers led by José Szapocznik, Ph.D., and Olga Hervis, M.S.W., at the Department of Public Health Sciences’ Center for Family Studies.

The City of Stockholm has been a BSFT partner for the past nine years, but the extension of the program to Syrian and Afghan refugees is new.

Szapocznik and his team developed BSFT over four decades of research to target children and adolescents between the ages of 6 and 17 at risk for developing behavior problems, including substance abuse, conduct problems and delinquency. The research began with studies of intergenerational conflict that led to the development of the intervention program, and early testing and effectiveness studies. Originally used to help refugee youth arriving in Miami from Cuba, the program is now used around the world, including in Chile, Puerto Rico, and Sweden, and valued for its scientific and evidence-based foundations. The City of New York began appointing BSFT-trained therapists throughout its child welfare services in 2013.

Joan Muir, Ph.D., Executive Director of the BSFT Institute, was recently in Stockholm and toured a social services facility for refugee youth where the program is in use. “I was really amazed with the quality of the facility,” said Muir. “You could just see how generous the Swedish social services system is. The housing is so nice that anybody would feel lucky to live there.”

However, the young people typically get to stay for a maximum of two months. On the walls along the corridors hang weekly schedules that convey a sense of stability: wake up, breakfast, activity, lunch, more activity, dinner. A dozen boys, 15 to 18 years old, live there now, and 10 more are expected to move in soon. Many of them have substance abuse problems and are suffering from mental illness. BSFT-trained social workers try to find solutions for them, for treatment, care and longer-term accommodation.

All BSFT therapy sessions are videotaped and evaluated by BSFT experts in Miami, with feedback directly to the social service workers on the ground in Stockholm. “BSFT involves a very close working relationship,” said Muir. One of the main reasons she went to Stockholm was to meet with newly appointed leadership of Framtid Stockholm, the agency that oversees the BSFT work in Stockholm. “For the program to work, it’s imperative that organizational leadership understands and is invested in the impact and importance of BSFT,” said Muir, adding, “It is going to be a challenging task to integrate these young Afghans and Syrians who are suffering from substance abuse, war trauma and oftentimes mental illness.”

Muir’s visit in Stockholm prompted an article in the city’s largest morning newspaper, Dagens Nyheter. The article quotes Göran Hägglund, head of Framtid Stockholm, saying BFST “has been successful when we have dealt with young people and their families that are experiencing abuse. When we realized that [UM] also has experience with unaccompanied youth arriving from Cuba and South America, it occurred to us that maybe they can give us input here as well.”

The BSFT team at UM is lending additional support to their Swedish colleagues by connecting them with their New York City counterparts in an exchange program that will have planned visits and regular videoconferences. “Stockholm and New York are already sister cities,” said Muir, “so this made a lot of sense.” Connecting the social workers across the Atlantic “shows the global reach and potential for BSFT.”

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