Youth-Led Photovoice Project Gives Refugees Opportunity to Explore Mental Health

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By Emily Gratopp, MS, ACSM-CPT, Extension Educator in Lancaster County

Nebraska Extension in Lancaster County and professors from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln have engaged youth in two Photovoice projects to better understand youth’s perspectives and foster youth-centric community development. These projects are part of Well Connected Communities, a national initiative which includes training Master Health Volunteers to be community leaders, implementers and advocates for health so that life-long health and well-being are within everyone’s reach.

Photovoice is what it sounds like: the use of photography to give voice to participants’ perceptions and ideas regarding community’s strengths and concerns (Wang & Burris, 1997). With the goal of participant-empowerment, Photovoice typically engages with participants whose voices are rarely heard in the community. This opportunity to “speak” through photographs about issues that bother them allows participants to promote dialogue about community issues and advocate for change.

Nebraska Extension recruited immigrant and refugee (I/R) youth to become Master Health Volunteers, which eventually led to the youth’s involvement in Photovoice. This first Photovoice project in 2021 was led by Extension Educator Emily Gratopp and focused on defining a healthy community from the youth’s perspective. The results of that Photovoice project are online at

Three youth leaders from the original project decided to lead a Photovoice project of their own. Two of the three youth attended the True Leaders in Equity Summit hosted by the National 4-H Council, along with Extension Educator Tracy Anderson and community partner Natalie Wieblehaus from the Asian Community and Culture Center. The youth then qualified and applied for a 4-H mini-grant to put their True Leaders in Equity skills to action in the form of Photovoice.

The three youth leaders are all refugees. Thus, they chose to focus their Photovoice project on young adult refugees, particularly the mental health impacts of dual navigation — which is the immigration of oneself while also assisting one’s family in the immigration process.

The refugee project leaders hypothesized that other I/R young adults experience negative impacts on mental health from dual navigation and desired to give them a process to gain awareness and verbalize their dual navigation and mental health experiences through Photovoice.

The project engaged seven young adults in five sessions and explored these questions:
• What does mental health mean to you?
• How has being an I/R impacted your mental health?
• How has dual navigation impacted your mental health?
• What supports your mental health as an I/R youth?
• What does access to mental health mean to you?

These young adult participants have had profound life experiences in their immigration journeys.

For example, one youth, in reflecting on mental health supports, compares life in refugee camps (see photo at upper right) to life here in the U.S. The participant emphasizes the importance of safety and amenities for mental health support, “A lot of them don’t feel safe in these places, and being there made me anxious because it didn’t have a lot of security ... there are a lot of fires there and if one tent catches on fire, the whole row would be on fire and they would lose their money, their passports or everything they have, all their belongings, which isn’t much, but still, it’s all they have, all their life savings. ... It’s dangerous there too because there were some houses that were bombed ... once you open the door ... a bomb could happen. That’s very dangerous.”

This participant also expressed ambivalence when reflecting upon the simplicity of the refugee camp, “Life is easier in America, honestly, well, not work wise. It’s more stressful in America.”

Overall, the participant expressed gratitude as something that supports mental health, “I feel so thankful to be here. ... I’m very thankful to be here and to have all these opportunities and have things that they don’t have and be able to speak two languages. ... I’m happy to have all these opportunities being in the U.S. ... a lot of opportunities they won’t be able to have.”

Another participant reflected on the mental health impacts of engaging in a diverse and supportive environment as well as the need to be heard and understood, “Being a refugee and an immigrant, you don’t really get to experience different kinds of traditions in your home country because you’re used to one culture and that’s your culture, but coming to a new country with so much diversity. ... It really impacts mostly your social well being because of the new people you’re meeting and the new culture and traditions you’re experiencing. ... Being a refugee, you have to feel that we may not be accepted here and we don’t really get to share those feelings with other people ... because they don’t really know what it’s like. We can share this with other people, like people of color, and people of different cultures and traditions because they actually know what it’s like ... they experience the hardship.”

Conversely, a participant reflected on the impacts of being “non-native” to a country and the mental health impacts of feeling unaccepted. “I took this photo mainly because of the text, ‘native plants.’ (See photo at lower left.) It correlates with being an I/R because you’re from a foreign land and coming to a different country with all these native people that know the language, that know how to navigate through the world. You just feel like an outcast. ... The people here think you’re trying to steal stuff from them. Like, on the news, people say, ‘Oh, I/R are stealing our jobs in America’ while they think of themselves as superior ... they think of us as ‘oh, look at these evil people illegally trying to come here’ ... they want to deport us, you know? Before coming [here], you’re really hopeful of the idea of getting an education, a new opportunity, freedom, but when you actually come here, your whole expectation drops and you become hopeless because all these people are trying to bring you down, and you’re just confused about everything because you don’t know the language, you don’t really know how to navigate through the world because everything is so much different. You have trouble speaking the language and processing everything. And the workload is stressful, too, because you’re working all these jobs ... my parents, when they came here, they had to work hours and hours of shifts just to make a living, and people don’t really appreciate those efforts. A lot of people need to see the I/R side of view so they know what we go through, what our parents go through, just to come and settle here.”

A fourth participant commented on the pressures of being an I/R while helping their families navigate a new culture, “I took a photo of this letter because sometimes I have to translate for my mom or sister, and it gets stressful because sometimes you forget certain words, and you don’t know how to translate it. (See photo at lower right.) It puts a lot of pressure on you, and it gets hurtful, and then you might feel like you’re not good enough.”

This article contains only a small sample of the Photovoice project results. View the full display at one of the upcoming Photovoice Exhibits. A virtual exhibit will be posted at

The youth’s perspectives and experiences will be displayed in upcoming Photovoice exhibits in Lincoln. For details, go to
• April 17–28: Gere Branch Library, 2400 S. 56th St.
• Sunday, April 30, 1–5 p.m.: Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Celebration at the Lancaster Event Center Fairgrounds, 84th & Havelock
• May dates TBA: Lux Center for the Arts, 2601 N. 48th St.