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OnCampus Weekly.. APRIL 2/04

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Social sensitivities

Social work prof developing
culturally appropriate services for Muslim communities

by Alex Frazer-Harrison

Developing social services programs can be a challenge when working with cultures with different customs and priorities.

grahamJohn Graham, the Murray Fraser Professor of Community Economic Development in the Faculty of Social Work, has spent years examining how best to develop effective social-service programs for communities in the Arab Middle East.

“ We have examined social services in a number of Arab communities, principally in Israel, Palestine and Jordan … researching what we can do to enhance social service delivery to make it more culturally responsive,” Graham says.

Graham is principal investigator of a $230,000 Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant examining social service delivery in Muslim communities in Canada, Egypt, Malaysia, Palestine, and the United States.

He also directs a major study funded at Columbia University on social services with Muslim peoples.

Graham has spent the past decade working with Alean Al-Krenawi, an Arab-Palestinian who is an associate professor of social work in Israel.
Graham says communities in the Middle East have been radically transformed in the space of a generation.

“ Among the Bedouin, for example, ancient ways of nomadic livelihood and living are giving way to semi-nomadic and settled ways of life,” he says. “Helping professionals and other ‘modern phenomena’ have been abruptly introduced.”
All cultures have their own assumptions and helping professions such as social services are no exception, he says.

“ Social-service theory emphasizes things like self-actualization, where the communities we were working with orient the individual so very strongly to the family and group,” Graham says.

“ Different patterns of communication and of relationship building apply. As a result, social workers and other professionals were getting things wrong.”

Graham’s research has highlighted the importance of addressing these differences, because miscommunication can have serious consequences.

“ We looked at cultural practices like blood vengeance and wrote about strategies for intervening in culturally appropriate ways,” he says. “We spent a lot of time learning from various healing traditions – the Dervish, Koranic healers whose traditions have been in the community, sometimes for centuries.

“ These are lessons that could be applied to how helping professionals are trained, to how they intervene. We set up demonstration projects where social workers could collaborate with elders and healers in order to render intervention less oppressive and more useful.”

Graham and Al-Krenawi are publishing a book in early 2005 on social services for Bedouin-Arab peoples. They are also writing a book on social services in Muslim communities for Columbia University Press.

Graham said his work reflects how vital it is that social services programs evolve to keep up with our increasingly diverse world culture, whether in the Middle East, or among the many ethnic groups in Calgary.

“ Old assumptions no longer apply,” he says. “Today, it’s about more differential rather than common human needs. To address this requires creativity and more out-of-the-box thinking.”


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