Grand Rapids 

Odessa Gonzalez Benson

Grand Rapids Project 1:

Migrant Model of Care

Collaborating Organizations:

Banyamulenge Community of Michigan (Congolese)
Bhutanese Community of Michigan

Student Researchers:
Naganika Sanga
Irene Routté
Audrey Montgomery
Alex Judelsohn

Project Description: Immigrant- and Refugee-Run Community-Based Organizations (CBOs) —managed by and for migrants —are frequently small, informal, financially unstable, and thus often invisible to healthcare, housing and human services providers. Research demonstrates that Migrant-Run (Immigrant + Refugee) CBOs are undercounted and underfunded, generating civic inequalities compared to their counter partners (Gleeson and Bloemraad 2012; Lacroix et al 2015). Yet, Migrant-Run CBOs facilitate the integration of refugee communities in the U.S. society, playing a key role in social and cultural adjustment (Clarke 2014; Piacentini 2012).

Our preliminary fieldwork in Kent County, Michigan, indicates that Migrant- Run CBOs also play a fundamental role connecting and facilitating newcomers’ access to health and social services. We identified 21 Migrant-Run CBOs in Kent Country and administered a pre-tested organizational survey to the board members. The in-depth survey consisted of 258 closed-ended questions about the nature and scope of CBOs’ activities. We documented CBOs’ size, budgets, communities served, and CBOs’ links to service providers in the realm of healthcare, housing and transportation, human services, and citizenship and naturalization.

Our next step is to conduct focus groups, interviews, and participant observation, which will allow us to develop what we are characterizing as a migrant model of care. After data collection on how Migrant-Run CBOs provide hands-on assistance to their community members and how they link migrants to healthcare services, we plan to promote meetings between Migrant-Run CBOs leaders and service providers in order to identify and overcome barriers to outreach and services provision.


(R&R) Gonzalez Benson, O., Yoshihama, M. & *Routte, I. Organizational legitimacy and grassroots organizations: Form, function and internal versus external legitimacy.

Gonzalez Benson, O., *Routte, I., Pimentel Walker, A., Yoshihama, M. & *Kelly, A. (2022). Refugee-led organizations’ crisis response during the COVID-19 pandemic. Refuge, 38(1), 62-77.

Gonzalez Benson, O., Pimentel Walker, A.P., Yoshihama, M., *Burnett, C. & *Asadi, L. (2019). A framework for ancillary health services provided by refugee and immigrant-run CBOs: Language assistance, systems navigation, and hands on support. Journal of Community Medicine

Pimentel Walker, A., *Sanga, N., Yoshihama, M., Gonzalez Benson, O. & *Routte, R. (2022). Participatory Action Research in times of COVID-19: Adapting approaches with Refugee-Led Community-Based Organizations. Progress in Community Health Partnerships: Research, Education, and Action, 16(2), 69-76.

Pimentel Walker, A., *Sanga, N., Yoshihama, M. & Gonzalez Benson, O. (2021) Risk communication and institutional racism: The protective health effect of refugee-led community organizations. Health Security, 19(1), S-89-S-94.

(Under Review) Gonzalez Benson, O., *Yu, M. & Magan, I. Problematizing “hard-to-reach” communities: A critical analysis of task shifting, contact making, establishing credibility and on-the-spot, solution-focused assistance.

(Under Review) Gonzalez Benson, O., *Judelsohn, A. & Pimentel Walker, A. Institutional links and refugee-led community organizations: A Bourdieusian analysis.

Grand Rapids Project 2: Refugee Education Pathways

Collaborating Organizations:

  • Banyamulenge Community of Michigan (Congolese)
  • [RE]vive: U-M Student Organization
  • U-M School of Nursing

Collaborating Faculty and Staff:

  • James Ellis, Research Scientist, U-M School of Social Work
  • Michelle Munro-Kramer, Assistant Professor, U-M School of Nursing
  • Jody Lori, Associate Dean for Global Affairs, U-M School of Nursing
  • Alain Mukwege, Research Scientist, U-M School of Nursing
  • Rushika Patel, DEI Director, U-M School of Nursing

Student Researchers and Student Participants:
[RE]vive student: Brooke Bacigal
[RE]vive student: Medha Krishen
Charlotte Burnett
Shih-Ya Chang
Meagan Gibeson
Neetu Rajkumar Nair
Juan Ricardo Muñoz-Ponce
Maki Usui

Project Description: This pilot participatory action research is aimed at increasing educational opportunities for refugee youth by demystifying higher education and providing relevant information. The project also aims to develop enhanced empirical knowledge regarding refugee youth’s life trajectories and barriers to higher education, which informs collective action to enhance educational policies and programs for refugee youth.

In collaboration with community and student organizations in a midwestern U.S. city, we organized a higher education pathway program for Congolese refugee youth and community leaders aspiring to pursue higher education. Seven individuals, ranging from late teens to their 30s, attended a one-day program, with a workshop, campus tour, and meeting with university administrators, and participated, along with two others, in a Life History Calendar interview. This paper analyzes the PAR processes and interviews with participants.

In addition to individual-level factors such as limited knowledge/literacy, various structural-level factors (ie. school policies, procedures) impede education of refugee youth. Our analysis highlights the importance of the community, as source of both support and responsibility for refugee youth. Results reveal the need to educate the community about higher education, but also how community is critical to educating the university about refugee education.

Our findings offer a three-level (individual, structural, and community) framework of education pathways for resettled refugees. A critical analysis of how factors at multiple levels interact and produce unique challenges and possibilities not only furthers the field of refugee studies but also informs more holistic, sustainable policies and programs for refugee education.

Publications : 

Gonzalez Benson, O., Yoshihama, M., Ellis, J., Pimentel, A., *Usui, M. & *Chang, S. (2022). Piloting Participatory Action Research: Community as intermediary in education pathways of Congolese refugee youth. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 28(3), 316-324.


For new refugees, ‘higher education is a path to freedom

Grand Rapids Project 3: Refugee-run organizations and Women’s Issues

Student Researcher: Leila Asadi

Project Description: The project interrogates how the refugee-serving institutions unfolds as site wherein gender struggles play out. We examine professional services provided by publicly-funded resettlement agencies and community assistance conducted by refugee-run organizations addressing gender and women’s issues, and to develop a more nuanced understanding of the processes and power dynamics enacted. Drawing upon intersectionality theory, we examine the process of gendering as intersected with issues of citizenship/ refugee status, as well racialization, that complicate or reinforce particular social locations in society and workplace. We investigate how refugee-serving institutions organizations enact the diverse socialization process through which gender and refugee/citizenship status play in the lives of refugee women.


(R&R) Gonzalez Benson, O., *Asadi, L., Yoshihama, M. & Pimentel Walker, A. Cultural-legal brokering and gender relations: Examining refugee-serving institutions upon resettlement.


Grand Rapids Project:


Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research: MCube, $60,000

Institute for Women and Gender: Faculty Seed Grant, $4000

National Center for Institutional Diversity: Research for Change, $4000

MICHR: Community-University Partnership Seed Grant, $4000

Ginsberg Center: Faculty Pilot Grant, $4000

Conference Presentations:

Society for Social Work Research Conference, virtual, Jan 2022

  • Gonzalez Benson, O., Pimentel Walker, A., Yoshihama, & Routte, I. Refugee youth: Identifying risk and protective factors for psychosocial well-being
  • Gonzalez Benson, O., Routte, I., Pimentel Walker, A, Yoshihama, M. & Kelly, A. Refugee-led organizations and the covid-19 pandemic: Embedded and flexible crisis response.

International Association of Forced Migration Conference, virtual, Jul 2021

  • Pimentel Walker, A.P., Gonzalez Benson, O. & Yoshihama, M. Migrants housing migrants: The role of refugee- and immigrant- run grassroots organizations.

Society for Social Work Research Virtual Conference, virtual, Jan 2021

  • Yoshihama, M., Gonzalez Benson, O., & Pimentel-Walker, A.P. The Life History Calendar method: Examining the migrant journey over time and place. Paper presentation at the Symposium on Methodological Issues: Critical Discussions on Innovation and Diversity.

17th Intl Migration, Integration and Social Cohesion Conference, Luxembourg, virtual, Jul 2020

  • Pimentel-Walker, A.P., Yoshihama, M. & Gonzalez Benson, O. Migration-related diversity in higher education

IMISCOE International Migration, Integration and Social Cohesion, virtual, Jul 2020

  • Yoshihama, M., Gonzalez Benson, O., & Pimentel-Walker, A. Application of the Life History Calendar Method to research with immigrants and refugees. Paper presentation at the Standing Committee session, Methodological Approaches and Tools in Migration Research