April 12, 2021

Growing virtually: Graduate student’s established outreach program for refugees embraces online era

Young participants show off their experiential artwork on Zoom, about using hands and feet to get where they want to go.

A refugee outreach program created by Wayne State University School of Medicine graduate student Lana Ruvolo Grasser, along with faculty members Arash Javanbakht, M.D., and Holly Feen-Calligan, Ph.D., that incorporates in-person arts and movement was forced to go virtual in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet the move to online intervention has led to even more success in reaching those who need the programming most.

“Through this shift, we have expanded our reach from families originating from Syria and Iraq to teens who immigrated to the United States from multiple countries of the Middle East, families who have resettled in southeastern Michigan as refugees of the Congo, and youth in the Waterford and Pontiac Schools districts,” she said.

Lana Ruvolo Grasser, far right, with her mentors, Arash Javanbakht, M.D., and Tanja Jovanovic, Ph.D.

Grasser is a fourth-year doctoral student in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences’ Translational Neuroscience program, She is a member of the Stress Trauma and Anxiety Research Clinic team founded by Dr. Javanbakht, an associate professor.

The project, “Targeting Trauma-Related Disorders with Arts and Movement Therapies,” is part of her doctoral dissertation, a secondary component of her main work in the STARC lab, as well as Detroit Trauma Project led by Professor Tanja Jovanovic, Ph.D., in which she studies the impact of civilian war trauma exposure on psychopathology, inflammation and autonomic function in youth.

Grasser oversees and facilitates all programming, including initial contact with resettlement agencies and schools. She also writes grants and integrates the team of art therapists, yoga instructors, dance/movement therapists and community partners. She leads data collection and analysis with a team of research assistants, supporting future grant funding, sharing with community partners and incorporating into academic publications. These include “Moving Through the Trauma: Dance/Movement Therapy as a Somatic-Based Intervention for Addressing Trauma and Stress Among Syrian Refugee Children,” published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry; and “Art therapy with Syrian refugee youth in the United States: An intervention study,” published last July in The Arts in Psychotherapy.

“It is certainly my passion project and where I hope my future career takes me,” she said.

An outdoor session was held where the family created a family shield made up of their greatest strengths.

Grasser was an incoming graduate student and dancer from Sylvan Lake, Mich., with a bachelor’s of science degree from Michigan State University when she launched a pilot version of the program at Wayne State in 2017. The dance and movement therapy programs she started for elementary school-age children in 2017 were implemented online in late fall 2020, expanding to Oakland County. Dance/movement therapist Jenna Spinei teaches the online program in the Pontiac and Waterford school districts.

“Being online has actually been very fruitful in expanding our reach here,” Grasser said.

The goal is to reduce stress and anxiety in youth, as well as provide coping skills and opportunities for movement and creative expression in the virtual age.

“Students loved this addition to their day … and the students have incorporated some of the moves at their desk when getting frustrated or upset,” one teacher said.

Another remarked that it is “great opportunity for my students to experience another perspective to help support their emotional wellness journey.”

“The students truly enjoy this time and always want more after the 30-minute session is over. Watching our students’ self-esteem grow through the weeks has been truly priceless,” another said.

To date, 135 children have engaged in some level of participation, attending at least one session.

“In this way, we have been able to address more youth by doing this online programming. We reach a number of classrooms in 30-minute segments per classroom across grade levels and across the district,” Grasser said.

Art therapist Natalie McCabe teaches a Zoom session.

Another wellness program designed to soothe when words fail is the photovoice art therapy program, completed last summer in collaboration with the Arab American National Museum and led by WSU College of Education Associate Professor and Art Therapy Program Coordinator Dr. Feen-Calligan and master’s student Sara Nasser.

“Photovoice is a qualitative method that encourages participants to take pictures from their daily lives and to reflect on their meaning and significance,” Dr. Feen-Calligan said. “The goals are to represent and enhance their communities, encourage dialogue through group discussion about the photographs, and to reach policymakers.”

Students documented their experiences with resettlement in the U.S. through photography.

The initiative launched in February 2020, just as the pandemic started gaining notoriety. “So that was our first exploration of transferring to virtual. We were supposed to run that program February through April, with an in-person gallery exhibition at AANM in September. However, we ended up transitioning online after taking a few weeks off to adjust,” Grasser said.

The program provided teens who immigrated from several Middle East countries the “unique opportunity to nurture and work with specific members of the Arab American community to allow them to tell their own important stories, using techniques in art therapy and photography,” said the AANM’s David Serio, an educator and public programming specialist.

They used Zoom and the WhatsApp for the eight teenage participate to share everything from their photos to short messages of encouragement. It concluded in June with an online gallery exhibition, including a virtual public opening reception.

More recently, a home-based art therapy led by therapists Jessica Smigels and Natalie McCabe and a yoga program for refugees of the Congo is serving five families in a collaboration with Samaritas. It incorporates yoga exercise for the mothers as well, another mainstay of Grasser’s overall wellness program that started in 2017.

“These home-based therapeutic interventions in the era of COVID-19 have sought to strengthen family bounds and build resilience within families and this community,” Grasser said.

Samaritas is the largest refugee resettlement organization in the state and the fourth-largest in the country.

“It has been a true honor working with the STARC team and we are very grateful to witness and learn from the incredible work they do. They are a gift to Samaritas refugee clients and staff,” said Mihaela Mitrofan, director of New American Programs.