University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee



Ukraine-Russia war brings new attention to USF professor Jody McBrien’s research on refugees

Jody McBrien, a professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies on the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus and an expert on international refugees, began her sabbatical in Paris in July 2021 to work for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as a Council of Foreign Relations fellow. Joining OECD’s Strength Through Diversity Project, McBrien spent a year studying and writing about educational policy and how countries can better create more equitable and inclusive schools for increasingly diverse student populations.

While there, she co-authored “The inclusion of LGBTQI+ students across education systems,” “Social and emotional learning of refugee and newcomer students,” and other working papers, among other responsibilities.

And then Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.

In less than seven months, Ukrainians fleeing invading Russians became the biggest refugee crisis since World War II – and definitely since 2002 when McBrien first began studying the plight of refugees while a doctoral student at Emory University in Atlanta.

Jody McBrien

USF professor Jody McBrien is a scholar in the field of refugee studies, She was on sabbatical in Europe, when Russia invaded Ukraine in February, creating the biggest refugee crisis since World War II.

A scholar in the relatively small field of refugee studies who had previously studied the experiences of Syrians and others displaced by war, McBrien was suddenly in demand for her expertise.

McBrien, who returned to the United States in July, said the humanitarian challenge facing all of Europe, and the world, is evident in the numbers. As of early August, the United Nations had counted 6.3 million Ukrainian refugees and another 7.5 million people displaced from their homes but still in Ukraine.

“In Poland alone there are 3 million Ukrainian refugees just since February,” McBrien said. “It is not a particularly wealthy country and sustaining that number in a matter of months is shocking.”

The United States, which has more stringent requirements for refugees seeking to resettle here, has taken in about 10,000 Ukrainian refugees.

“I think we can do more,” McBrien said.

After Russia attacked Ukraine, McBrien wrote policy briefs and a blog post on how to help Ukrainian refugees for the OECD and participated in several panels and discussions on the needs of refugee students. She also spoke about the humanitarian crisis created by the war as part of “Ukraine: What’s Next,” a virtual speaker series presented in the spring by the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus and other organizations.

Her research, McBrien said, has linked USF with a somewhat unique field of study. She hopes to return to Europe later this year for more in-depth research on the Ukrainian refugee crisis, which could create opportunities for USF students to study more closely the issue overseas.

When teaching courses on global migration and international human rights, McBrien assigns her students to conduct hour-long interviews with refugees about their experiences, providing them with insights they never before imagined.

"Ninety-eight percent of them say, ‘I had no idea this is what a refugee is like. I didn’t know they may be as educated as I am. I didn’t know how difficult their life situation was.’ They say it’s changed their perspective entirely,” McBrien said.

McBrien talks intently, and with empathy, about the challenges that refugee children face. Their plight has been a passion of hers since, as doctoral student, she volunteered as part of a class assignment with an Atlanta agency that helped refugees from Bosnia, Iraq and several African countries adjust to their new lives in the United States.

McBrien said she “fell in love with the kids. I just loved how much they cared about going to school. I was used to American kids, some of whom didn’t want to be bothered or think it’s a pain in the butt. These kids knew education was their future.

“They were trying so hard to learn. They just won me over,” she said.

Ukrainian refugees have been well-received in Europe, able to obtain housing and other services — albeit at times at the expense of earlier refugees from Afghanistan and Syria who have been displaced by the attention given the new arrivals, McBrien said.

“We have white Christian Europeans vs dark-skinned Muslims. It’s sad because everyone is equally in need and deserving and grateful for opportunities to start again and to be safe,” McBrien said.

Refugee children often suffer the biggest losses — everything from their family members to their toys — when forced to flee their homes and their homeland for a new place, McBrien said.

Ukrainian children have been welcomed at their new schools. but McBrien said teachers need to be prepared to deal with all of the challenges facing those kids, many of them more profound than having to read and write in a new language.

“If you are suffering from the trauma of watching your grandfather be killed in the street, it’s very difficult to put your mind to learning a new language. And if you are hungry or you don’t have a place where you can sleep at night, you can’t concentrate on your math problems,” McBrien said. “The academics are critically important to these kids’ future but they are not going to be able to concentrate on it without their other needs being met, in terms of psychological, social, physical.”

Regardless of the outcome of the war on the battlefield or at the negotiating table, the Ukrainian refugee crisis will take longer to resolve, McBrien said. Most refugees will be not be able to turn around and return home once the fighting stops.

“Sometimes people think that when there is a ceasefire, everything’s OK,” McBrien said. “It is going to take years because so many schools, hospitals and homes have been wiped out by bombs. Even if today there was a truce, these families just can’t return. There are no schools to go to, there are no businesses to work at, their homes have been destroyed. It will take years.”

Those are challenges Ukraine and the rest of the world, including the United States, will have to grapple with. In the meantime, McBrien said there are simple things Americans can do to help. They can contribute financially to aid agencies like Save the Children, and do whatever they can to break through the fear and stereotypes often attached unjustly to refugees.

Study and learn, McBrien said, like her students do.

“One thing is to keep an open mind and an open heart and not expect the worst,” McBrien said. “When you hear people saying they’re out to take our jobs, they’re out to hurt us, etc., disrupt that conversation by gaining some knowledge about what the refugee journey is really all about.” 

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