In 2019, Finnish-Canadian Social Psychology Masters student Maria Besselink began the early stages of her evaluation of the Together Project Welcome Group program. With the support of her Western University thesis advisor, Dr. Victoria Esses, Maria set out to examine how Canadian volunteers’ perceptions and attitudes towards refugees would change over a six-month match with a refugee newcomer household.
However, just as she was about to begin her study, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.
With Canada’s top doctors recommending social distancing to “flatten the curve,” Welcome Group volunteers, who often interacted with refugees through home visits and neighbourhood walks, suddenly had to shift to online interactions over WhatsApp. For public safety, face-to-face interactions had to be replaced by video chats and text messages.
“At first, I wasn’t even sure if the Welcome Groups would be able to continue their program,” she said. “But when Together Project said they were switching to online support, I decided to quickly shift my entire project to a study of virtual contact.”
With limited existing literature on resettlement and virtual interactions, Maria had to bring social psychology into a whole new realm.
With the support of Dr. Esses, Maria broke new ground with her thesis, More than just virtual communication: Examining Canadian volunteers’ virtual contact experiences with refugees.
Over a six-month period, 54 Welcome Group volunteers, representing both Canadian-born and foreign-born participants, completed five online surveys.
The first volunteer survey took place at the beginning of the match, and the fifth survey was administered as the match was completed.
When asked what surprised her most about her findings, Maria said, “The fact that the attitudes remained so unchanged at the end of the program— it was a very positive surprise.”
With the Welcome Group volunteers having consistently positive attitudes towards refugees at the beginning of the program, Maria expected that their enthusiasm would wane after a six-month match.
“I was honestly kind of worried because when we did the first survey, all of the volunteers’ attitudes were extremely positive, like 7 out of 7,” she said. “I wondered, ‘Can they sustain this? What will happen?’”
“You can hypothesize that if you engage with people that you don’t really know for six months, it’s not positive all of the time,” she said. “Despite those variations in experiences, it was unexpected and surprising that their attitudes stayed the same.”
However, the Together Project volunteers retained their positive attitudes towards refugees throughout the Welcome Group program.
And to Maria’s surprise, over six months, attitudes remained positive even among her comparison group of 112 participants from Forum Research, who matched the Welcome Group volunteers’ genders, age, and location in the Greater Toronto Area.
She hypothesized that it was due to a sense that the pandemic had brought everyone together through a shared experience.
“There had been some initial research suggesting more negative attitudes towards newcomers during the pandemic, but there is also some research contradicting this, suggesting more positive attitudes that were likely influenced by the ‘We’re all in this together’ mentality,” she said.
Maria’s research was influenced by Intergroup Contact Hypothesis– a social psychological theory that was developed in the 1950s.
“Basically, it says that if people from two different groups interact and have repeated positive interactions, that will reduce boundaries, racism and negative stereotypes or anything of that sort, because they’re having positive interactions,” she explained.
“The gist of it— the theoretical framework that this whole study relies on— is that people interacting repeatedly over time will reduce group boundaries.”
And through her study, Maria found that even in the midst of a global pandemic, with interactions limited to video chat or text message, the volunteers’ attitudes towards refugees still remained positive.
For Maria, the real power of Welcome Groups is the potential for Extended Contact Hypothesis— the impact of the Welcome Group spreading beyond Together Project and changing public opinion.
“Basically, Extended Contact Hypothesis says that if you know that your friend or family member has close contact with a certain person, like a refugee, and you know that this person had a positive experience, this could positively influence how you think about refugees,” Maria said.
“In broader Canadian society, that’s how you reach those people who don’t seek to engage with those who are different from them: by them knowing that a friend or a family member is actively engaging in the matching program and having positive experiences with people who are different from them.”
She hopes that with the Welcome Group program attracting so many volunteers with positive attitudes towards refugees and giving them a chance to interact with local refugee families, this will have a ripple effect throughout society.
“If someone with no contact with refugees had false or stereotypical beliefs about refugees, and they had a friend who was volunteering in a Welcome Group, that could change their perception— and that’s how you create real change,” she said.
As a newly-minted Master of Science in Social Psychology with a Specialization in Migration and Ethnic Studies, Maria is grateful to the Together Project volunteers for helping her evaluate the Welcome Group program during the shift to virtual interactions.
As people become more at ease with face-to-face meetings, Maria hopes to see a blend between virtual and in-person interactions between volunteers and refugees.
“I know that Together Project jumped into a virtual model because of COVID, but I think it’s worth continuing, at least as a hybrid model,” she said. “Virtual contact is still better than nothing, and specifically in this program, a lot of friendships are formed. Hopefully, more programs like this can be implemented.”
“I thought that Together Project did an amazing job, and I’m glad that I got to shed light on it through my research.”
Interview by Jennilee Austria