Embodied Experiences of Syrian and Iraqi Refugees Living with Disability Through a Lived Experience Lens

Seed Funding Project Lead Investigator

Ruth Wells School of Psychiatry, UNSW Medicine.

Research team

Dr Julia Lappin School of Psychiatry; Professor Katherine Boydell Black Dog Institute; and Dr Caroline Lenette and Dr Angela Dew from the School of Social Sciences.

Project Background

Due to ongoing wars in Syria and Iraq, millions of people have been forced to flee their homes. Over 25,000 refugees from these countries have settled in Sydney since 2006, especially in the western suburbs. Professionals working with communities in these areas have noticed a steadily increasing number presenting with a disability or multiple disabilities. Little is known about the number and needs of people from refugee backgrounds with disabilities, the extent of disability, or their knowledge about or acceptance of supports and services. Syrian and Iraqi people from a refugee background have been exposed to significant adversity, including poverty, war and trauma. Consequently, they are likely to experience high rates of both biological and acquired cognitive, mental, physical and sensory disability. Those with disability face specific barriers to service access, including: lack of assessment and support in their country of origin; stigma and discrimination; reduced capacity for community and social support in the settlement country; and poor health literacy and ‘disability literacy’.

Project Aim

Use an Action Research framework to build the capacity of a Syrian or Iraqi person from a refugee background with lived experience of disability as a Bicultural Research Assistant to pilot a range of culturally appropriate arts-based research methods for use with people with disability from these backgrounds in order to understand their experiences.  

Interdisciplinary research collaboration

This project brings together UNSW academics from the School of Social Sciences’ Intellectual Disability Behaviour Support Program (disability research) and Forced Migration Research Network (refugee research); The Black Dog Institute (mental health); and the Faculty of Medicine School of Psychiatry (mental health research) and School of Psychiatry Trauma and Mental Health Unit (refugee mental
health). Our interdisciplinary team includes arts-based researchers with experience in a) engaging people with disability in arts-based research which can assist them to have a voice in decision making; b) working with the narratives of displaced people; and c) amplifying the voices of users of the mental health system. In addition, researchers from the Faculty of Medicine will bring clinical and research experience  working with psychosocially vulnerable populations including a) severe mental illness and b) Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon as well as Iranian and Afghani asylum seekers and refugees in Sydney. 

Engaging local decision makers for sustainable outcomes

We have established a partnership with key organisations leading the service response to the needs of people from refugee backgrounds and people living with disability in NSW including: Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS), NSW Refugee Health Service, Community Paediatrics South Western Sydney Local Health District, Settlement Services International, Sydney Children’s Hospital Children’s Refugee Service and SDN Children’s Services. 


Email: Ruth Wells Lead Investigator ruth.wells@unsw.edu.au