Cristina Poleacovschi grew up in the Republic of Moldova, a landlocked country of about 2.5 million people tucked between Ukraine and Romania. Moldova’s capital city, Chişinău, is about 100 miles northwest of Odessa, Ukraine, and the Black Sea.

“My aunt and cousins live in Karkhiv, Ukraine,” Poleacovschi said. “They, and many others, have been sheltering in basements and bomb shelters for months with very limited resources.”

Ukrainians are also leaving the country to escape Russia’s invasion. Since Russian soldiers entered the country in late February, more than 6.6 million Ukrainians have crossed European borders, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In March, the White House announced the United States would accept up to 100,000 of the refugees, especially Ukrainians who already have family members in the U.S.

The situation sparked some thinking by Poleacovschi – an Iowa State University assistant professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering – and three Iowa State colleagues. How could they help the refugees, especially those who make their way to the American Midwest?

It turns out they’re well equipped to help.

Poleacovschi has worked with Nell Gabiam, an anthropologist, and Scott Feinstein, a political scientist, on various studies of refugee housing, infrastructure, conditions and issues in Greece, France, Switzerland and Germany.

“And now those types of challenges put us in motion to think about the current crisis,” Poleacovschi said.

That thinking led to a proposal to the National Science Foundation’s Civic Innovation Challenge, a “research and action competition” designed to accelerate civic-focused research and technology development into community practice.

The Iowa State researchers added Katherine (Katie) Madson, a civil engineer, to the team and recently won a six-month, $50,000, stage-one planning grant. They’ll later compete for a one-year, $1 million, stage-two, full grant. Poleacovschi will lead the project.

The Iowa State researchers will study which factors determine successful integration of Ukrainian refugees into Midwestern communities. Their primary focus will be on improving housing conditions, which could help the refugees build a new foundation for stability and normalcy.

The idea is to develop flexible, decision-making tools that can help refugee services analyze and understand federal funding availability, identify communities with Ukrainian heritage and navigate the various national identities, cultures and political divisions that affect refugees, according to a project summary.

The goal is the “provision and management of housing in ways that best benefit refugees while also adapting to constraints,” the researchers wrote.

Here’s the researchers’ plan to do that:

  • Gabiam, an associate professor of world languages and cultures, will focus her attention on the refugees themselves and the non-governmental organizations that work with them. She’ll interview refugees and meet with organizations. The data will help determine “impediments to effective housing solutions for refugees and how they might affect them.”
  • Feinstein, an assistant professor of political science, has extensive experience studying national identity in Ukraine and how it affects national and regional politics. For this project, he’ll study how the national identity of refugees in the U.S. changes, and how that impacts relationships with relief agencies, American society and housing services.
  • Madson, an assistant professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering, will create tools that help agencies and providers make better refugee housing decisions early in the resettlement process. The tools will also align those decisions with the values and needs of the refugees.
  • Poleacovschi wants to find ways to get the broader society more involved with vulnerable populations, particularly refugees new to a country or region. She also expects the researchers to spend some time in Chicago, which is emerging as a hub for Ukrainian refugees.

One tool that could come out of their work is a photo/voice/mapping application that helps refugees make housing decisions and tell their stories. It would display photos of refugee housing, follow trends and include the voices of the refugees themselves.

“That could help decision-makers tap into the refugee experience,” Poleacovschi said.

Another objective is to help decision-makers understand that refugees’ struggles don’t end when there’s a roof over their heads.

“We deal with this as an emergency and therefore temporary,” Gabiam said. “But being a refugee is becoming more normalized. Refugee crises can sometimes last for decades and addressing the needs of refugees requires long-term solutions.”