Studying European approaches to integrating refugees into the labor force: an interview with Fulbright-Schuman Recipient Narintohn Luangrath

Every year since 1990 the United States (U.S.) State Department and the Directorat General for Education and Culture of the European Commission have jointly funded an average of twenty Fulbright-Schuman grants to support graduate and post-graduate study, research, and lecture proposals in the field of U.S.-EU relations, EU policy, or EU institutions. The program, administered by the Commission for Educational Exchange between the United States and Belgium, provides grants to students from the U.S. and EU member states to support their research for a period ranging between four and nine months.

One of this year’s Fulbright-Schuman recipients is American Narintohn Luangrath from Tigard, Oregon. The Fulbright-Schuman program is currently funding her stay as a researcher at the Migration Policy Institute Europe (MPI Europe) in Brussels. She has been in Brussels since September 2016. The USEU press team recently caught up with Narintohn and asked her about her experiences as a Fulbright-Schuman grantee.

1)      What did you do prior to receiving your Fulbright grant? 

After earning my Bachelor’s Degree in International Studies from Boston College in 2014, I spent a year working as a Truman-Albright Fellow in a program evaluation office of the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). There, I explored my interest in refugee resettlement and integration by studying the Refugee Cash Assistance (RCA) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs, and to what extent they support the economic self-sufficiency and employment outcomes of refugees. During this time, I became interested in the unique labor mobility challenges facing refugees, and started to learn more about how cities and localities could be better supported in their efforts to become “welcoming communities” for new arrivals. Immediately prior to receiving my Fulbright-Schuman grant, I served as Scholar-In-Residence and Communications and Development Officer at the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation, working with the Executive Secretary to develop and execute a fundraising and development strategy for the Foundation.

2)      How did you hear about Fulbright? What made you apply? 

I was a senior in college when my thesis advisor told me about the Fulbright-Schuman program, but I did not end up applying for a Fulbright grant until I was two years out of college. Working on refugee and other migration issues at the federal government-level piqued my interest in the labor market integration of refugees in the U.S. and got me thinking about how transatlantic information sharing on issues surrounding the economic inclusion of refugees in the U.S. and Europe could be improved. Given the increase in refugee arrivals in the European Union from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Eritrea, among other countries, I wanted to explore how agenda-setting on refugee issues occurs on the EU-level, and how various EU funding schemes and policy priorities for the labor market integration of refugees are translated into policies and programs on the national- and local-levels in EU Member States.

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Fulbright Recipients Greg Barrett and Narintohn Luangrath in the residence of the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium (Image: Narintohn Luangrath)

3)      Could you briefly describe your project? 

I am conducting a research project on the labor market integration of refugees in select EU Member States (United Kingdom, Germany, and Sweden). Broadly, my Fulbright project examines how private enterprise works with government agencies in facilitating refugees’ labor market integration, whether through the direct hiring of refugees or through policy development (e.g., through influencing the development of vocational training programs, apprenticeships, subsidized employment schemes, vocation-specific language courses, etc.). I am particularly interested in the role of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in this endeavor. Relatedly, I am interested in how different labor market structures in my case countries – and corresponding differences in the relationship between the public sector, private enterprise, and labor unions – might impact labor market entry and wage mobility for refugees.

During my Fulbright grant period, I have had the privilege of interviewing government officials, representatives from private industry, non-profit and advocacy groups, job search assistance staff, and academic researchers from my case countries. The MPI Europe staff have been invaluable in helping me make interview connections in Brussels and in my case countries. I have also had the opportunity to provide research assistance for one of their current projects. MPI Europe staff have connections to high-level EU policymakers, government officials, and other think tanks and research institutes in Europe. Their strong reputation for conducting research on the biggest migration policy questions in Europe have certainly helped me make interview connections I would not have otherwise made. Unsurprisingly, living in Brussels allows me to meet a variety of stakeholders working on migration issues at the EU-level, and more clearly draw connections between what I see happening in Brussels with policy and program developments in my case countries.

4)      What do you hope to get out of your Fulbright experience?

I hope to learn about “promising practices” related to my Fulbright research topic, with the goal of bringing some of those ideas and approaches back to the U.S. to improve the labor market integration of refugees here at home. I also hope to learn from my fellow grantees based in Brussels and elsewhere in Europe. I recently participated in the EU-NATO Seminar organized by the Belgium/Luxembourg Fulbright Commission, where I presented some of my preliminary research findings. My fellow grantees asked me great questions and provided helpful feedback that I continue to keep in mind as I work on my project.

My Fulbright project is exploratory in nature, but I hope to publish my findings as a think tank-style report or policy brief after my grant period concludes. Additionally, I would like to publish some of my findings in mainstream press – perhaps by authoring an op-ed – to reach audiences outside of government and academic/research circles.

5)      Is there anything else you would like to say about your Fulbright experience?

Members of my extended family were refugees after the Laotian Civil War, so being part of the Fulbright-Schuman program and conducting this research project has been enriching, both personally and professionally. Growing up as a member of the Laotian community in Portland, Oregon allowed me to witness the range and diversity of the refugee experience within my own family and members of the Laotian diaspora. I am very fortunate to spend every day learning about how to improve the economic well-being of refugees and their children, and meeting Europeans committed to doing that work at the EU-level or in their Member States.

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