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Tippens explores well-being among older refugees

Julie Tippens
Julie Tippens

Like many large cities, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, is a patchwork of coexisting prosperity and poverty. Nebraska researcher Julie Tippens is navigating this city’s urban divide in search of refugee families from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Tippens is investigating how Congolese refugees, particularly older refugees, are faring in Tanzania’s urban environments. Six of 10 refugees now live in cities — many lacking legal documentation — and the majority still live in countries of first asylum where they initially arrived after fleeing violence and unrest in their home countries.

Less than 1 percent of these refugees will be resettled to a new country, such as the United States.

An urban informal resettlement in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
An urban informal resettlement in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

“Older refugees tend to have even fewer options for resettlement,” said Tippens, assistant professor of child, youth and family studies. “As we start to understand their living situations, it’s important to look at interventions for countries like Tanzania, where refugees will likely be for the rest of their lives.”

Tippens is building on her dissertation research, which assessed adult refugees’ psychosocial well-being in Kenya using a mental health survey from the World Health Organization. She found that refugees 50 and older experienced much higher levels of distress, including problems sleeping and eating.

With funding from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Office of Research and Economic Development, Tippens interviewed 50 Congolese refugees living in urban informal settlements in Dar es Salaam. She asked about their stressors, coping strategies and social supports. Coping strategies and preferred social supports differed by age.

Tippens interviews a Congolese refugee in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Julie Tippens interviews a Congolese refugee in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

During these interviews, older refugees discussed why they felt distressed: isolation, loss of social support, not being able to find work, and loss of cultural influence and social roles. However, Tippens found that older refugees with some sort of social role and respect said they were “doing better” or “getting by” compared to other elders.

“Respect is tied to aging well,” said Tippens, a CYFS faculty affiliate. “I met a woman in her 70s who was the matriarch of the family. You could tell she had really strong social support within the family, and she was definitely still in charge of things.”

Tippens aims to use these perspectives to inform future research, as well as social support programming in East Africa and the United States. The U.S. Department of State has prioritized more than 50,000 Congolese refugees for resettlement in America, and the Nebraska Refugee Resettlement Program already has begun receiving cases from refugees originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“I want to contribute to the evidence that refugees who are different ages cope differently, which I hope will have an eventual impact on how programs are designed,” Tippens said. “My ultimate goal is to improve refugees’ psychosocial well-being.”