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A study led by ISU professors will help Ukrainian refugees integrate into the Midwest

Four professors  stand in front of a computer, smiling. One of them wears a Ukrainian flag shirt and another dons a hard helmet. They're the team of researchers studying Ukrainian housing.
Sarah Hays
Iowa State University
Iowa State researchers, left to right, Katherine (Katie) Madson, Nell Gabiam, Cristina Poleacovschi and Scott Feinstein are working to develop decision-making tools that help Ukrainian refugees in the Midwest find suitable housing. The researchers say better housing conditions can help refugees build a new foundation for stability and normalcy.

A group of Iowa State University researchers is studying the challenges facing Ukrainian refugees who are resettling in Iowa. The researchers hope to build an app that will assist organizations in identifying housing for refugees in the future.

There have been studies on refugee housing in countries across Europe, but not a lot of research has been done in the Midwest. Professor of civil engineering Cristina Poleacovschi wants to change that by studying the resettlement process in Iowa and Chicago.

She said stable housing is foundational to a refugee’s integration. But, it’s not always readily available in the resettlement process.

“Refugees are already a group of people who are experiencing trauma,” she said. “And whenever being resettled to a different place, if they are not provided with the right resources, the effect of trauma on their quality of life is compounded.”

On top of affordable housing shortages, refugees often also struggle to qualify for some residences and may end up in housing that is ill-fitted to their size or that’s in poor condition.

Poleacovschi said that refugee organizations label housing as a huge issue.Her team will try to gather more specific data around the challenges that agencies have described anecdotally.

“I just want to make sure that everybody's been provided with the quality of life that they deserve,” she said. “It's really important that we, as a society, mobilize and are able to really provide more permanent solutions to these issues.”

“I just want to make sure that everybody's been provided with the quality of life that they deserve."
Cristina Poleacovschi, civil engineering professor at ISU

The United States has agreed to accept up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees– in light of the Russian invasion that began in February of this year. In March, Gov. Kim Reynolds said Iowa will stand readyto accept refugees.

Political science professor Scott Feinstein said the project will focus on documenting these refugees’ experiences – in hopes of bringing their often-marginalized voice to the forefront. The researchers will bring their work to policy-makers, in hopes of improving conditions.

“With the intent to bring the voice and challenges that refugees are facing to those who are planning cities, who are stakeholders in these communities,” Feinstein said.

For Poleacovschi, the project is also personal. She has family living in Kharkiv, Ukraine, who until two months ago were sheltering in the basement of their apartment building. Although they’ve left the dangerous situation, they’re still facing many challenges.

“They’re constantly hearing shootings and just having a traumatic experience,” she said. “So that also really put me in a position that I had to do something to move some type of project forward.”

The team of professors includes Poleacovshi, Feinstein, anthropology professor Nell Gabiam and assistant professor of civil engineering Katie Madson.

Although the project is focusing on Ukrainian refugees, Poleacovschi hopes that the final result will be something any migrant community can use to aid their integration.

"It's really important that we as a society, mobilize and are able to really provide more permanent solutions to this issues."
Cristina Poleacovschi, civil engineering professor at ISU

It will also explore how refugees shape and influence the United States’ national identity. Feinstein said housing can play a pivotal role in how the newcomers engage with U.S. civil society, as it’s often their first encounter.

“We often think of U.S. civil society as one of these fundamental means of democracy,” Feinstein said. “And so, whether they're able to sort of make a more robust one or turned off by it in part is going to be shaped by these first interactions.”

The research will be conducted in a six month period. After it’s complete, the researchers will compete at the National Science Foundation’s Civic Innovation challenge for a $1 million grant.

Those funds would help put the information they gain from the study in an interactive format.

Kendall was Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA until Jan. 20, 2023.