Recent refugee crises are garnering national media attention as many unaccompanied migrants are applying for refugee/asylee status. There is a need for social workers competent in this area to address the needs of refugees coming to make a new home in the United States. Read the three main responsibilities that fall into the professional areas of work that this career entitles:

Mental Health Needs

Many immigrants and refugees are likely to face discrimination and oppression in their new country meaning that clients will be experiencing a shift of power relations in the new culture that could impact their mental health.

Refugees are likely to represent a variety of cultural backgrounds, countries of origin, levels of acculturation, perceptions of wellness, and migration experiences. Social workers should take care to remember that refugees are granted such status due to persecution or fear of persecution – meaning that these individuals have often experienced traumatic events, often lived in unstable situations, and are likely to have had significant disruptions in their daily lives for an extended period of time.

Those entering the U.S. with refugee status are often in great need of mental health services, in addition to resettlement services as they begin a new life in a new country.

Because immigrant and refugee clients experience a complex range of issues related to their transnational identity, migration experience, resettlement and acculturation, and often trauma, social work practitioners must understand the culture and context, as well as the social values of the individual in order to effectively intervene.¹

A clinical social worker can only hope to be effective in working with clients of diverse cultural backgrounds and experiences once an understanding of “how social values shape the conceptualization and the social construction of mental health” has been gained.²

Resettlement Services and Public Benefits

Social workers are often a critical part of the refugee resettlement process, usually employed by the resettlement agency affiliates, and acting as case managers to guide refugees through their first few months in the U.S. and connect them to appropriate services and supports.

Together, the affiliate agency and sponsor prepare for the refugee’s arrival, and provide a core group or services in the first 30-90 days post-arrival. These services include medical care, food provision, housing arrangements, clothing, and employment placement assistance.

In addition to these core resettlement services, refugees are eligible to receive certain public benefits in the form of Refugee Cash Assistance, Refugee Medical Assistance, and Unaccompanied Refugee Minors for up to 8 months. Qualifying refugees may also receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Family (TANF) and Medicaid, with payment levels varying by state.

The administration of all of these forms of assistance varies by state, but eligibility requirements for refugees remain federally established. For more information on the types of programs available in each state, visit the Office of Refugee Resettlment’s website.

Additionally, all refugees under the age of 18 are entitled to free public education, just like any U.S. citizen, and all refugees are entitled to receive employment authorization for work in the United States. Refugees may apply for adjustment of status to become Lawful Permanent Residents after one year of residence under refugee status in the U.S, and after five years, they may apply for naturalized citizenship status.

Proposal Development and Grant-Writing

This area of work is the crux of a development professional’s focus. Development professionals must seek out funding opportunities, develop program or project proposals that fit the funder’s aims and requirements, and write the grant proposal to be funded. Specific activities in this area include:

  • Developing a database of funding opportunities through research, building connections to funders, surveying past funding sources
  • Working with the leadership team to strategically determine which funding opportunities will be sought and what programs to propose
  • Developing program proposals that include measurable outcomes, timelines, and present a compelling need for the program’s services
  • Writing funding proposals, or grants, according to funder specifications
  • Staying on top of deadlines, supplemental materials requirements, and communications to ensure that grants are submitted correctly for review

For social work graduates looking for a non-traditional career path that employs social work skills and competencies and creates impact at the organizational level, a career in development is a promising choice!




¹(Segal & Mayadas, 2005)

²(James & Prilleltensky, 2002, p. 1137)