New study examines the mentoring experience of unaccompanied refugee minors

Raithelhuber, E. (2019). ‘If we want, they help us in any way’: how ‘unaccompanied refugee minors’ experience mentoring relationships. European Journal of Social Work, 0(0), 1–16. doi:10.1080/13691457.2019.1606787

Summarized by Cyanea Poon

Notes of Interest: Mentoring youths is an international movement, but little is known about the process of mentorship for unaccompanied refugee minors. This study specifically aims at unpacking the these experiences through an Austrian mentoring program. The study unpacks how mentoring can be a means to social support and access to social capital for youth who have experienced forced migration.


Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract):

Little is known about the growing phenomenon of ‘mentorship for “unaccompanied refugee minors”’. This article looks into one serious gap, based on a case study in Austria, asking: How do these young people, most of them seeking asylum, represent relationships in a mentorship programme? Here, youth mentoring is understood as a community-based form of  social intervention carried out by an organisation that connects trained adult volunteers with young people. The findings from two multilingual group interviews focus on various dimensions of social support and social capital, e.g. with regard to settling in and life course transitions. Reacting to calls for methodological reflection in studies on the refugee experience, the article presents in detail the setting and approach, which partly built on the concept of the ‘tripled Otherness of “unaccompanied minors”’. An analysis of their narrations is discussed against the wider context, particularly that of systematic discrimination by welfare agencies and efforts by various actors to rearrange URMs’ differential inclusion. The conclusion proposes that research should better reflect the political dimension in mentoring for marginalised populations. It argues that the potential of such programmes should be tapped to develop progressive protection arrangements extending beyond the limits of the welfarist nation state.


Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Mentorship as a (partial) achievement of substantial social participation
In summary, it can be said that, in various ways and to varying extents, the pilot project helped these young people find opportunities and ways of partially achieving substantial social participation at central institutions – clearly after just a few months of mentoring (see also Raithelhuber, Trott, & Piemontese, 2018). In this connection, the young people recognised and named the aspects they found important for social participation in Austria’s nation-state society. They came into the pilot project and met ‘their’ mentors with clearly formulated personal ideas of the individual skills, status positions and steps required for such participation. They sometimes understood the model of ‘godparenthood’ that they were offered instrumentally as a way – even the only way – to foster certain central aspects which would help their life course progress positively and support them in their day-to-day efforts to survive and make a life for themselves. This is underlined by the fact that in some cases the relationship with a mentor – e.g. understanding them, being close to them – was conceived as a sort of catalyst or critical point for gaining access to wider knowledge on society and social support, and to bridge or shortcut a perceived distance and divide. This resembles the findings of Sirriyeh (2013) on URMs’ perceptions of foster parents as well as insights from Eriksson et al. (2018) on the role of ‘Swedes’ as representatives of the average majority population. However, it has to be highlighted, once again, that the situation of accommodation and social protection that ‘our’ interviewees experienced in the Austrian context, as well as their possibilities of forging contacts with locals, were much more precarious than in the two above-mentioned studies.

Mentorship as a possibility to achieve and manage social capital
In the language of the concept of ‘social capital’ (Coleman, 1988), young people were thus given access to part of the social structure that they could use as a resource for their actions. Some delib- erately sought access to it, which can be understood as them actively managing their social capital. That becomes especially clear in the ‘negative examples’, e.g. when young people wanted a ‘new godparent’, for instance, with ‘more time’, e.g. to learn with them. However, it can also be assumed that – with regard to certain resources which only became available to the young people during the godparenthood – social capital was also an unintended, indirect consequence of the inter- action with their godparents (for the differences, see Torche & Valenzuela, 2011, pp. 183–185). This finding reflects similar insights from Sirriyeh’s(2013) study on relationships with foster parents, men- tioned above. There, the perceived and achieved status of a young person in care, reflected in their experiences of relationships, closely corresponded to young people’s perception of social support and the availability of resources, including for key life course transitions.

Mentorship as social support
The young people experienced mentoring as a form of support which was not only instrumental, but also informational and emotional (see Antonucci, Lansford, & Ajrouch, 2007 for an overview). They did, after all, receive advice and assistance in solving problems, while experiencing empathy and being liked and respected. In addition, some realised, through the developing relationship, that support would continue to be available in the future if any needs arose or materialised. For many, their social network expanded not just through their relationship with their godparents, but also through other resulting connections, enabling them to receive support, or support others, in the present and future. They experienced being invited into personal, intergenerational relationships and, as a result, sometimes gaining access to a wider web of relationships. However, the interviewees did not only find the provision and receipt of this social support to be pleasant, good and positive; rather, they described it as demanding; something which required them to react and explain them- selves. This finding resembles similar insights from the aforementioned Swedish study by Eriksson et al. (2018) on (former) URMs’ proximate social network members. According to the narrations recon- structed in in-depth interviews, the hard-to-attain, but highly rated contact with ‘Swedes’ required the prior decrypting of ‘cultural’ codes and adapting to new ways of behaving and communicating, including corporeality (Eriksson et al., 2018, p. 13).


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