Research Spotlight: Creating Communities of Wellness for DRC Refugees: Lessons Learned from the Field

Lauren Metcalf is an alum of the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University (B.A. International Affairs & Religion ’21). Lindsey Anderson (B.A. Editing, Writing, and Media ’23) authored this summary of Lauren’s honors thesis titled, “Creating Communities of Wellness for DRC Refugees: Lessons Learned from the Field.”

Headshot of Lauren Metcalf wearing a navy sleeveless turtleneck against foliage.
Lauren Metcalf

Lauren Metcalf’s honors thesis aims to understand how refugees’ ideas about health and wellness impact their relationship with health professionals in their area. In Tallahassee, there continues to be a refugee community from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Metcalf argues, “for Tallahassee to become a supportive resettlement city, Tallahassee must create a community of wellness that allows for refugees’ success” (p. 7). She further argues that opening access to translational services, improving transportation systems, and increasing external institutional and community support – like those available in the more established resettlement city of Indianapolis – would improve the path to holistic wellness for refugees in the city.

Metcalf defines three key terms to help explore the core concepts with which she frames her discussion about immigrant well-being in her thesis.

Metcalf defines wellness as “a multidimensional state of being, describing the existence of positive health in an individual exemplified by quality of life and a sense of well-being” (Corbin and Pangrazi 2001, p. 3). She further describes the “multidimensional state” as including “spiritual, physical, emotional, career, intellectual, environmental, [and] social” factors (Oliver et al. 2019, p. 48).

Metcalf acknowledged the duality of the term refugee, though it’s overall negative connotation. Citing Bernadette Ludwig’s view of how society views refugees as “powerless victims or beneficiaries of generous welfare packages” (p.10) Metcalf that refugees are neither and that instead we must view them as they are “placed in a system that brings multiple challenges” (p. 11). Metcalf aims to give a broader context on DRC Refugees, who originated from the Democratic Republic of the Congo but were forced to flee the nation-state out of fear for their family’s lives. 

To develop her research, Metcalf interviews DRC refugees to understand their definitions of wellness and health. Utilizing previous studies by anthropologist Adrien Nginama Ngudiankama, Metcalf finds when Congolese feel ill, they believe that there is a conflict in their state of being, which can be caused by internal or external conflict (e.g., mental state, community tensions) (p. 11). Although when Metcalf interviewed two of the DRC refugees, they mentioned “no ‘conflictual states’ with their communities or the cosmos.” Instead, they cited issues regarding public health, such as access to health care, language barriers in treatment, housing conditions, and food quality.

Refugees elaborated on their inadequate living conditions – and expressed that they had control over their health due to these living conditions. One refugee said, “There are some apartments that I’ve lived in that have bugs and cockroaches, and it really takes time for these apartments to come and spray the homes. Meanwhile, the cockroaches are reproducing. There’ll be a lot in the house, and they’ll be in every food we eat” (p. 17). They added, “And then with smoking, you know, there’s no way I can let someone know, “Hey, you should stop smoking.” But if there’ll be like restrictions … like if they can have a place where they can go rather than just smoking in public and affecting other people. So that’s pretty big because if I’ve been close to people smoking, and then I inhale that and then start coughing. That causes me problems too” (p. 17).

Overall Metcalf argues that socioeconomic limitations only worsen the health disparities among refugees. She cites examples such as lack of proper nutrition, sidewalks, recreational buildings, and adequate infrastructure.

Metcalf’s study highlights the importance for the DRC refugees to have social networks within their cities, demonstrating that the city of Tallahassee does not fully support its refugee population. Metcalf concludes, “a meaningful engagement with Tallahassee’s refugee community can build a more supported and supportive resettlement community, in collaboration with the … greater Tallahassee community’s cooperation” (p. 39).