The Islamic tradition of child sponsorship or guardianship, called kafala, is a long-held child care practice throughout Islamic countries and societies and is consistent with Sharī’a law (Kutty 2015; Winter & Williams 2002). However, many Western social workers are unaware of the practice and obligations; the concept is largely unexplored in the social work literature, with some minor exceptions (e.g., Mapp 2010). As a result, there are inevitable misunderstandings in cross-cultural practice and potentially violations of religious tenets.

The purpose of this article is to provide an overview and brief exploration of the practice of kafala with orphaned and vulnerable children (OVC) to begin to fill the extensive gap in social work literature. We define the practice, as per obligations in Islam, and then look at specific country examples as illustrations with a close look at current law and practices in Jordan, specifically refugee camps. We present the need for Western social workers to understand the constraints of Islam in the care of OVC and especially unaccompanied refugee minors (URMs). As authors, we assert that social workers in Western nations, specifically in the USA, must be prepared to respond to the needs of URMs, particularly the children of Syria and of the Middle Eastern region, given the current migration patterns. There are currently nearly 100,000 unaccompanied or separated child refugees, the majority of them from nations in which Islam is the dominant religion, including Afghanistan, Eritrea, Syria, and Somalia (McKirdy 2016). There are typically about 1300 URMs in the US system at any given time (Office of Refugee Resettlement 2015) and just over 1000 in the Canadian system (Wouk et al. 2006). In Europe, more than one in five of the 870,000 refugees and migrants arriving by sea in 2015 was a URM (International Organization for Migration 2015) and the care of URMs in Europe varies by country. Consequently, adequate and appropriate professional training is essential for social workers; training for the carers (e.g., foster parents) of URMs is also critical in the current global environment.

Clarifying the Term Kafala and Blood Ties

Clarification of the term kafala is critical. In this article, we use the term in reference to the guardianship of children. A guardian in a kafala arrangement is known as a kafil, and the verb takafala means to provide for an orphaned or unparented child’s basic needs, while the term makfool is used to refer to the child in such a care arrangement. Being a guardian of a child or children, including fostering a child, is considered a virtuous act in Islam, as the Prophet himself was cared for in this manner (Kutty 2015; Winter & Williams 2002). Kafala is different from adoption in Christian and Western societies as the blood ties between the child and his or her biological parents are never legally severed in a kafala arrangement, and child “adoption…. is forbidden by the Qur’ān” (Winter & Williams 2002, p. 59). We note that in Western societies, there are some child adoptions which do not completely sever the child’s legal relationship to the family of origin; however, a full legal break of familial relationship is a relatively common practice in adoption decrees in the West (O’Halloran 2009). Such practice of full legal severance of family ties has come under scrutiny, including by adoptee advocacy groups, which are particularly concerned with birth certificates not listing biological parents. This practice is seen by some adoptees and other advocates to be an erasure of identity and the systematic perpetuation of falsehood in terms of the right to know one’s origin (Transue-Woolston 2011).

Kutty (2015) explains the significance of blood ties and family life and governance under Sharī’a law. Specifically identified is the following passage of the Qur’ān (33:4–5).

“God did not make those whom you call your sons your sons [in reality”]. That is no more than an expression from your mouths and God speaks the truth and He guides to the [correct] way. Attribute them to their fathers: That is more just in the eyes of God, but if you know not the names of their fathers, then they are your brothers in faith and your dependents.

This, and other passages of the Qur’ān, identifies kafala and other obligations of family life and the need to preserve family-of-origin ties. Preserving the family name and origin when possible, as well as the rights of inheritance (Baron 2007; Kutty 2015), is of particular importance in Islam.

Islam, Child Rights, and Alternative Care of Children

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the most agreed upon human rights instrument in the world dating back to its entry into force in 1990 (UNICEF 2014), identifies a number of child rights that are critical to framing our discussion. Fundamentally, the CRC is grounded in the principle of the best interests of the child (Cantwell 2014) and enacting this principle means planning care for each child on a case-by-case basis, drawing upon their own social support resources in the family and kinship group (Bailey 2009). Importantly, Article 3 states “The best interests of children must be the primary concern in making decisions that may affect them. All adults should do what is best for children. When adults make decisions, they should think about how their decisions will affect children…” (UNICEF 2014).

Furthermore, the CRC protects a child’s right to religion, name, and nationality as well as the right to have their birth recorded correctly, preserving their social history. Specifically, Article 7 states that Every child has the right to a name, a nationality, and to know and be cared for by her or his parents.” Also, Article 8 states that “Every child has a right to preserve her or his identity, including nationality, name, and family relations.” Conceptions of identity and rights of nationality are critically important in the care and protection of children, especially those fleeing conflict zones where acts of genocide are scripted to destroy specific groups and their membership identity. This problem was identified during World War II when some displaced children were resocialized such that their cultural and ethnic social histories were intentionally undermined (even erased) as an act of genocide. Today, the Genocide Convention of 1948 addresses this issue specifically (Art. 2), given the atrocities of World War II and the forcible removal of children from one group to another group (e.g., Jewish children being reared in Catholic families). Also, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights further underscores the rights of individuals to flee for safety and seek asylum, given this history of genocide (Mapp 2010).

Turning back to the CRC, Article 20 goes on to identify that “Children who are deprived of their family must receive alternative care with due regard to the child’s ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic background.” To meet these ends, it should be noted that the development of alternative care plans for OVC is so important that the UN has additional Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children (United Nations 2010).

Practical guidance includes the prevention of parental-child separation whenever possible and then appropriate measures for alternative care that fits cultural contexts, including child guardianship recommendations for practice. In addition, social work scholars such as Roby (2007) have provided a way of thinking about the continuum of care necessary to ensure child rights in care planning; drawing upon the relevant CRC articles to frame her recommendations with the recognition that often families will develop informal agreements to meet the needs of the child during family crisis or difficult times (Roby 2011). Furthermore, Article 12 ov the CRC explicitily states that children’s opinions must be listened to in all matters that affect their lives. When children are without parental care, the autonomy of the child is recognized as essential in care planning; whenever possible, their opinion is a critical element of a rights-based approach to making alternative care arrangements (United Nations 2010).

The CRC defines the age of majority as 18, and any person under that age is considered to be a child. It is important to note that the definition of “child” in some Arab countries is still contested, especially on gendered lines. For example, in Syria, the Personal Status Code authorizes some child marriages, and “it allows the judge to lower the age of marriage of boys to 15 years and of girls to 13 years if they are considered willing parties to the marriage, ‘physically mature’, and if the father or grandfather consents” (Committee on the Rights of the Child 2012, pp. 7–8).

Upon the signing of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), dating back to the 1980s and the agreement enforcement in 1990, Islamic states required that tenants of Islam supersede any article of the CRC that may be in conflict with religious obligations (Mapp 2010). Among those countries was Saudi Arabia, which upon ratification, indicated reservation “with respect to all such articles as are in conflict with the provisions of Islamic law” (United Nations Treaty Collection 2015, p. 1). The Western conception of child adoption as a “child right” was one concern raised in particular by Islamic societies (Art. 21 of the CRC focuses on child adoption as a right, specifically). Child adoption was identified to be in contradiction with Sharī’a law (Mapp 2010). For example, the United Arab Emirates specifically stated, upon ratification, that it “…has reservations with respect to this article [Art. 21] and does not deem it necessary to be bound by its provisions” (United Nations Treaty Collection 2015, p. 1). Kuwait also entered a similar reservation and stated that they do not recognize child adoption, whereas Jordan stated that adoption was “…at variance with the precepts of the tolerant Islamic Sharī’a” and thus did not recognize the practice, identified within Article 21 of the CRC (United Nations Treaty Collection 2015, p. 1).

There was, however, no detailed explanation of how child guardianship or kafala is to be enacted at the societal, community, or familial levels. A literature review that we conducted for this research reveals that in the more than 20 years since the CRC was drafted, there has been little explanation of kafala and that which exists is presented almost entirely without empirical evidence of actual practices in different Islamic societies.

For example, Stilt and Gandhavadi (2011) discuss legal reforms and Muslim family life, including briefly touching upon kafala within Moroccan law, without evidence of actual practices at the family system level. Gaimani (2004) also provides a historical analysis of the “orphan decree” in Yemen, again without evidence of practices in the family and community systems. Then, there is gray literature on the subject. For example, the Muslim Women’s Shura Council (2011) provides a persuasive position statement that encourages a broad and flexible definition of care of children in kafala that allows for child adoption while adhering to the ethical principles of Islam.

In another report, the International Islamic Center for Population Studies and Research (IICPSR) in Egypt states that when a child is deprived of parental care, often, the larger extended family will take over care responsibilities as guardians of the child (IICPSR 2005). This extended family and kinship approach to caring for such children is a critically important protective factor and a family and societal strength. The IICPSR (2005) clarifies the idea of kafala, which may be carried out by both relatives or nonrelatives:

A child deprived of parental care should be sponsored. His or her sponsors should act as if they are the child’s parents, and are expected to provide what parents are usually expected to provide. The Islamic Sharī’a encourages Muslims to take up sponsorship to provide care for children in need. In compensating for the loss of parental care, the sponsors are promised a great reward; they will be in the company of the Prophet himself in Paradise. (p. 24).

Kafala in Practice: Blood Ties and Unrelated Child Care

Brown and Bjawi-Levine (2002) point out that children being cared for by immediate or extended family is consistent with societies that have a strong emphasis on blood lines in the Middle East where the child “…is an important link in the family’s intergenerational continuity, and therefore occupies a crucial space in which the present is conjoined with the past and the future. The primary social unit is the extended family, whose size may vary from 20 to 200 persons up to an entire tribe” and the family group decisions for how the child is cared for is such that the child “feels part of a lineage group” (2002, p. 167). As a result, many children naturally flow or circulate across family networks (see Leinaweaver 2008), as a fluid process, based on the circumstances of each child—sometimes on a temporary basis and other times permanently, depending on need (Roby 2011).

In the latter case, these care arrangements often mirror what is called “relative child adoption” in Western contexts, in which permanent care of the child is achieved through the extended family (Bailey 2012). Such a kinship solution is congruent with traditional societies with a strong orientation to collective well-being—not unlike many communities found throughout the Islamic world, especially where tribal groups and collectivist cultures are marked elements of the social structure.

For example, in Turkey, there is the evlatlık institution, a practice parallel to kafala (Togrul 2012). Evlats are most often orphan girls “who are brought into upper and middle class households under conditions of ‘quasi-adoption’ . . . under the pretext of charity toward and protection of the poor” (Togrul 2012, p. 103). Ostensibly, these typically informal arrangements protect children, especially girls, from serious human rights abuses, which orphaned children living on the street in Eastern countries often face such as violence, sexual abuse, child labor, forced begging, and forced prostitution, among other child rights violations (Mapp 2010). Although in the case of evlats in Turkey, girls are often exploited for unpaid domestic labor, and the promise of a better life through the evlatlık institution is often unachieved, and the girls are subjected to a range of abuses (Togrul 2012).

In the case of caring for an unrelated child, kafala is an example of “constant charity” in which a child’s basic needs are met. Islam’s requirements for charity certainly play a significant role when a child is cared for by nonrelatives (Arvind 2013), particularly for children who live in institutions due to economic and/or family circumstances in low-resource countries. In other countries, such as the oil-rich countries of the Arab Gulf, there is a different scenario regarding economic pressures. However, the care principles remain the same, given the overarching value system of Islam.

For example, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), for those children who are unparented—most often abandoned due to illegitimacy––there are formally organized care plans developed by social services within residential care settings. The most recognized of these homes is the Dar Zayed for Family Care, established by the country’s founding father Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan with his personal funds. In this particular institution, dedicated to creating an environment of family-like care, there are small living units staffed by a “house mother.” These homes are visited by social workers who oversee cases in a case manager role (Nowais 2003; Zayed Higher Organization, n.d.). In addition to personalized institutional care, there are more traditional foster families for the youngest of children needing care, such as infants in guardianship arrangements meeting obligations of kafala (for an example, see “Caring for UAE orphans a labour of love,” 2011).

Children who enter institutional care in a group home environment typically live there until the age of maturity, as most children cared for by this organization are considered children “of the unknown” (illegitimate children or foundlings). Regardless of a child’s background, in this home, the children have the identity of being cared for by sponsoring members of the royal family, and UAE citizenship and rights are guaranteed within this protective guardianship framework (Nowais 2003).

As the UAE is a high-income country and one of the most generous welfare states in the world, it is to be expected that the children cared for in official alternative care arrangements (as described earlier) would receive comprehensive state-supported care, including a free education until the completion of university if the child/individual should choose that educational pathway (“Caring for UAE orphans a labour of love,” 2011). It should also be noted that this education entitlement, of a free 4-year higher education, is available to all citizens of the UAE. Youth transitioning out of care does so with a supportive structure that even includes attention to a marriage arrangement (Emirates News Agency 2003), a critical function of UAE family life, and a social norm for family life continuation in adulthood.

Initiatives in foster care are undergoing development in Dubai, UAE (e.g., relatively new regulations; see Issa 2013, as well as the aforementioned child care strategies of alternative care organizations). The term “adoption” has even entered into the discourse when an Al Jazeera (Fisher 2015) news story ran the title “Adopting orphans and breaking taboo in Dubai.” Progress is being made with a new child protection law in the UAE, dating back to 2012 and entering into force in the summer of 2016 (Nereim 2012; Webster 2016). Child welfare system transformation is underway, and systems of care continue to emerge to intervene effectively and professionally in child abuse and neglect. Strengthening existing systems while developing new approaches to intervention, including alternative care of children, is in a period of transition in order to effectively respond to child abuse and neglect.

In contrast to the UAE and Gulf countries, many other Islamic countries with far fewer resources struggle with the care of OVC. As a result of poverty and lack of adequate government financing, many low-resource countries must depend on donations from individuals, organizations, and foreign donors such as the UAE and other countries and organizations (e.g., Red Crescent) charitable giving for foreign aid. In Afghanistan, for example, conflict and chaos related to long-term conditions of war have been a reality for decades, and services at the community level are fragmented while there are limited means for livelihood. As a result, the quality of family life and health in general is challenging, with some of the worst social and health indicators in the region (Rotabi 2012). Fundamental problems like child malnutrition and low school attendance remain serious and persistent issues. As a result, there are high rates of child institutionalization. Fundamentally, an institution is a location where children theoretically receive adequate food and educational resources (Williamson & Greenberg 2010). Thus, families sometimes resort to these institutions to meet their children’s basic needs of food and education, not unlike a boarding school for poor children.

A concerted effort, however, is now being made in Afghanistan and other low-resource countries to reintegrate such children back into their communities and families with intervention initiatives oriented to family-based care for children (Cantwell et al. 2012). This approach, funded by various humanitarian aid organizations such as UNICEF, is oriented to facilitating family reunification and also preventing family-child separation in the first place. A critical aspect of this work in bringing children back into communities and family life requires a skilled social service workforce. As a result, social work training and congruent community-based support structures are under development in Afghanistan (e.g., see Kang 2008) and elsewhere (Cantwell et al. 2012). Even with concerted efforts for change, thousands of Afghani children remain in institutional care where they languish and suffer from the profound effects of neglect on child growth and development (The Leiden Conference on the Development and Care of Children without Permanent Parents 2012; Rotabi 2012; Williamson & Greenberg 2010).

This statement is not to suggest that the people of Afghanistan have a lesser commitment to Islamic values of charity and caring for the vulnerable. The economic context, however, is such that the actual flow of community-based monies and donations as an act of charity is inadequate to meet child care needs on such a large scale. Furthermore, taking an orphaned child into a family system—a united family that often includes multiple other children—is an additional family financial stressor and burden in a country characterized by extreme poverty. As a result, it is not uncommon for citizens of oil-rich Gulf countries (e.g., Saudi Arabia and the UAE) to make cash donations or zakat, for the institutional care of OVC in Afghanistan and in other impoverished and/or conflict-ridden Muslim areas, such as Palestine (Naguib & Okkenhaug 2007).

Quiet Shifts in the Care of Orphaned and Vulnerable Children in Morocco

The majority of academic literature on kafala is conceptual in nature with the exception of Bargach’s (2002) ethnographic study, which presents empirical evidence in Morocco. This study identifies various practices of caring for orphans, particularly emphasizing children born out of wedlock. In this study, secret adoptions were identified. Infertile couples, among others, were found to be quietly arranging child adoptions even though it is forbidden in Islam. Bargach’s (2002) is the only known study that captures secret practices that appear to ignore the Islamic obligations of kafala (e.g., changing a child’s name such that he or she appears to be a biological offspring). Although the practice of secret adoptions has long occurred in traditional societies in the East and elsewhere, this particular study is the first to document the phenomena, with evidence, in an Islamic context. It should be noted that Western countries such as the USA have a well-documented history of secret adoptions. These practices, as well as policy and legal changes, have been addressed as human rights violations by adoptee advocacy groups to guarantee that an individual’s social history is recorded correctly (O’Halloran 2009).

Jordan: Massive Refugee Camps Address Unaccompanied Refugee Minors

The fourth author of this article has worked as a United Nations representative in one of the largest refugee camps in the world, located in Jordan. Here, she offers firsthand knowledge of the family tracing process for URMs as well as care planning in the best interests of the child. It should be noted that in this particular camp, there are multiple nongovernment organizations that assist the United Nations in the settlement of URMs. The process of family tracing is a priority, and the daily care and protection of children are also a simultaneous service area. Many children are cared for in foster care arrangements in the camps; refugee families also living in the same camp are often acting as foster families. Ideally, such an arrangement is temporary while parents and/or the extended family is located through social work assessment and family tracing (information management) systems. Family reunification is the ultimate goal, and the parallel process of developing systems of care in Jordan is ongoing today.

The practice of alternative care in Jordan is based on the Juvenile Law and its amendment of 1968, as well as the Child Protection Rules of 1972 (Ministry of Social Development 2015). These codes identify issues such as legal penalties applicable to foster parents for neglect of or causing harm to children under their care. As to individual foster care under the 1968 code, “a child is placed with foster or alternative family which is basically known as Usrah al–Badillah or al usrah al–hadhinah” (p. 1).

Child Protection Rule no. 34, 1972, defines an alternative family as “any family that is suitable other than the natural family who is entrusted by the Ministry of Social Development or the Court for a limited or unlimited period of time to take care and protect a child under the age of 18 years old and is in need of protection either temporarily or permanently” (p. 1). Furthermore, foster families can obtain monthly allowances from the National Aid Fund to assist with the care of children. Individual foster care is also based on practices, procedures, policies, and conditions set by the Ministry of Social Development. Those who are interested in applying to foster a child may apply to the head of the Social Development and Women Affairs or the head of the Family and Children at the Ministry of Social Development.

Jordan follows a case-by-case solution to determine the best interests of the child. The system privileges citizen candidates. Child fostering placements abroad can take place with either citizens or foreigners under certain stipulations such as when potential foster parents are the same religion as the child. Finally, it is crucial to say that the Jordanian system is in transition from institutional care to family-based care and the foster care model is used for cases. This is consistent with a global trend of strengthening systems to ensure that children may receive family-based care as a child right when possible (Cantwell et al. 2012; United Nations 2010; United Nations Treaty Collection 2015).

Unaccompanied Refugee Minors from Syria: Implications of Kafala Obligations in the West

As some of these children and youths will not be reunited with biological family members even with concerted tracing efforts, it is highly likely that some children will be permanently settled with biologically unrelated families in the West. In fact, the urge to rescue and adopt foreign children during disasters is common in countries like the USA, Canada, Western Europe, and Australia (Doyle 2010; Rotabi & Bromfield 2016).

Foster care, however, is the norm for URMs in Western countries where there have been long-standing URM programs funded by the central government with protocols and standards for social services. For instance, the UK and the USA have developed foster care programming as child guardianship of URMs; in the USA, the Department of State is the federal agency responsible, and then, social services are administrated at the local level in a number of cities. Children who are placed in the URM program in the USA receive benefits such as placing them in compatible homes in which there are matching ethnicity, language, and religion when possible (Tobias-Nahi 2017). Additionally, foster families are recruited and trained to interface with children and youths who have experienced trauma. These children and youths often need emotional help, including intensive clinical services, in their resettlement processes (Lee 2012). About 15,000 URMs from around the world have already been settled in the USA. The conflict in Syria is of great concern, and while not all URMs practice Islam, a significant portion are from regions where Muslim populations are in the majority, as noted previously.

While there is not a large body of research on URMs in the USA, it should be noted that the resettlement process for such children and youths has been explored. Lee (2012) found that some of these refugees reflected on their experience and reported that while they were not legally adopted, their long-term foster care placements provided a sense of safety and security that allowed for bonding, not unlike a child adoption. In this instance, such a family environment is consistent with Islam as the guardianship approach fits within the conception of kafala although it is preferable that a Muslim child be placed with a Muslim family.

Implications for Social Work Practice with Unaccompanied Refugee Minors from Current Conflicts

The USA has taken far fewer URMs than Western European countries since the conflict in Syria began. Given that this current refugee flow is now the largest crisis migration in global history, surpassing World War II (McKirdy 2016), we anticipate that the USA will continue to be under pressure to receive URMs.

We make this prediction with one caveat. There may be significant changes under the new presidential administration of Donald Trump, which is known to have an anti-immigrant stance in policy planning. At the time of this writing, the Trump administration had just enacted an executive order banning immigrant visas from some countries with majority Muslim populations, including Syria. Plans to cease receiving refugees have also surfaced—with the possible exception of receiving Christian refugees only. President Trump’s executive order banning immigrant visas from certain Muslim countries was blocked by a federal judge in February 2017 (Shear et al. 2017). President Trump’s executive order banning immigrant visas from certain Muslim countries was blocked by a federal judge in February 2017 (Shear et al. 2017). Trump issued a second executive order in March 2017; this order was also blocked by a federal court. At the time of this writing, the likelihood of another presidential executive order banning immigrants from some Muslim countries from traveling to the USA is uncertain.

It is our position that the USA must introduce concepts that are new to our social service vernacular, especially considering the needs of children who practice Islam. As we have presented here, the conception of kafala is essential as we seek alternative care interventions that support Islamic tenants. This is our responsibility from a child rights perspective along with our ethical obligations of respect, integrity, and the importance of culturally appropriate and rights-oriented social work practice (International Federation of Social Workers and the International Association of Schools of Social Work 2004; National Association of Social Workers 1999; Roby 2007). Because social workers will be working cross-culturally, it is important to consider religious obligations and the need to promote tolerance, and while cross-cultural work and a commitment to immigrants are a bedrock of social work engagement, we need to sharpen our knowledge of Islam in Western countries.

As with any cross-cultural work that is concerned with the right to preserve one’s culture and identity, integration (as defined by Berry 1997) requires a basic level of cultural understanding and a concerted effort to promote tolerance in the host community, including the freedom to practice one’s religion. As a profession, we seek to promote these ideas in both community practice and in direct client contact. However, resistance in community life is difficult to overcome, and the current environment of limited trust related to terrorism and other fears associated with differences between Christianity and Islam presents challenges for social workers in the USA.

From a strengths perspective (Saleebey 2012), social workers have been trained to view the people that they serve as agents who possess self-determination and a variety of strengths upon which to rely during times of crisis and transition. In refugee resettlement in the USA, many social workers partner with their newcomer clients to meet basic needs like housing, education, employment, and basic medical care. Integrating into the community is largely a job for the newly resettled refugee to negotiate, which presents a unique challenge for URMs and their caregivers. Minors are typically resettled into one of two types of situations. First is with a foster family that has participated in specific training to prepare them to host a refugee foster child. Second, some URMs are placed in group home settings where staff assist them in meeting the tasks of daily living and eventually transitioning to adulthood and self-sufficiency. Both settings require well-trained caregivers.

This federal foster care system is parallel to the public foster care system in the USA except that it is managed largely by two faith communities that partner with the US Office of Refugee Resettlement: Lutheran Community Services and the Conference of Catholic Bishops in 15 different states. Refugee resettlement in the USA with all refugees is conducted through public-private partnerships—the private partners in large measure are nonprofit religious organizations. Though these faith community partners are not required to hire social workers, many social workers occupy various positions within the agencies. For this reason, it is vital for social workers to understand the religious beliefs and values of their URM clients and provide a social work perspective to other staff and caregivers.

For those working with foster families and group home workers, it is essential to verify that foster parents and group home workers understand that attempting to religiously convert a child from Islam to any other religion is unacceptable and a violation of the child’s rights to his or her religion (Article 14 of the CRC). Because some foster families have the motivation of “helping the orphan,” given recent calls by evangelical Christians and other faith groups to rescue the fatherless child, this problem of foster families attempting to convert a child to Christianity cannot be underestimated (Eby et al. 2011). To ensure that such a violation does not occur, concerted training in this area is essential. Monitoring and follow-up case management verification are also critical to ensure that a child is not being forced into religious activities that are problematic in terms of his or her Islamic faith.

Social Workers and Cultural Competence Training: Understanding Kafala

As social workers and authors, we assert that there are three central reasons that social work professionals and staff working with URMs need to include the concept of kafala in their cultural competence training. First, individual identity as it connects to family-of-origin identity is central to the concept of kafala. According to Berry’s (1997) integration model, newcomers are healthiest when they are able to balance adaptation to the host culture with maintenance with their culture of origin. To support URMs as they are resettled into a new community, there must be an understanding of the role of identity, both personal and familial, if successful integration is going to be achieved. Second, engaging in practice with cross-cultural humility (Núñez 2000) supports the integration process, which, in turn, results in a more successful resettlement process. Success in refugee resettlement and integration is largely measured by self-sufficiency. With culturally competent case management, for example, refugees were able to make use of the skills that they brought with them to the USA (Shaw & Poulin 2015). Finally, as social workers, we have a professional and ethical obligation to practice with competence, meeting our clients where they are, and proceeding as partners in the helping process (Fong 2001; National Association of Social Workers 1999). Supporting religious traditions and mores where applicable is central to our role as social workers and to the successful integration and identity development to our clients.


The Islamic tradition of guardianship, known as kafala, has important implications for the profession of social work in the USA and elsewhere. Substitute care of children, particularly with adolescents known as URMs, often occurs at a pivotal developmental phase of adolescence when individual and familial identities are being formed. We submit that supporting a smooth integration process in which refugees are allowed space to maintain aspects of their culture of origin while methodically adding values of the host culture is imperative to ethical social work practice. Furthermore, from a macro perspective, confronting the social structures that promote injustice while developing better policies, programs, and services is critical as we refine our practices to encourage multiculturalization (Fong 2001; Moosa-Mitha & Ross-Sheriff 2008). We assert that there is a great deal of work to be done, particularly with attention to immigrants with Islamic and traditional society backgrounds. Although we have focused on the importance of competent social work practice in the USA, these recommendations are also applicable to our colleagues in other refugee host countries such as Germany, France, the UK, and elsewhere.