Note: A special thanks to Bridging Refugee Youth & Children's Services for their contributions to this article.
"An immigrant leaves his homeland to find greener grass. A refugee leaves his homeland because the grass is burning under his feet…"
— Barbara Law, More Than Just Surviving Handbook: ESL for Every Classroom Teacher
My first experience with refugees was in 1980, as a student. Large numbers of Asian students began enrolling in my junior high school — Hmong, Lao, Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees who were resettling in Minneapolis as part of the Refugee Resettlement Act.
Minnesota is a state built from the efforts of immigrants, and many citizens are familiar with the stories of their own ancestors who came to build a new life here. Yet these newcomers were not immigrants — they were refugees who had no choice but to leave the country they loved and begin a new life in a strange new country. They were also very different from the immigrant ancestors with which our community was familiar, and unfortunately our teachers and the school staff didn't explain much about the newcomers who looked very different from our average student.
They were in ESL classes, mostly separated from the mainstream, and to us, their habits seemed strange. They weren't familiar with Western style clothes, so boys would wear frilly, feminine blouses, had long hair, and were comfortable holding hands. Their languages were so different than the languages any of us had ever studied. They married very young, and as a result some of the girls had children at 14 or 15 years old.
Most American students didn't know much about the geography or history of Vietnam and the region, and so the new "boat people" who were arriving in large numbers were a mystery to us. While I am ashamed to admit this, at the time, my junior high peers and I made up our own stories about these students, often creating more misunderstanding and tension.
Fast forward nearly three decades. During the 1990s, the United States experienced a dramatic increase in refugee resettlement, admitting more than 132,000 refugees in 1992.1 That number declined steadily throughout the decade except for a brief surge in 1998 and 1999, but following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. dropped off sharply, and has been in flux ever since.2,3
What is important to note, however, is that, according to the Brookings Institute's Metropolitan Policy Program, between 1983 and 2004, refugees had "overwhelming been resettled in metropolitan areas with large foreign-born populations," where the impact of their arrival may not have been as dramatic as it would be in smaller cities. The Metropolitan Policy Program's recent research, however, shows a trend of resettling refugees in medium-sized and smaller cities such as Binghamton, NY, Sioux Falls, SD, and Spokane, WA — areas where a large refugee population can have a major impact on the community.4 That impact is particularly significant if people, governments, and schools are not used to meeting the needs of such a diverse population.
As ELL educators we have a unique opportunity to help educate our mainstream students and families about newly arriving refugees, develop cultural understanding and acceptance, and smooth the transition for both refugees and mainstream students.
Refugee or Immigrant?
According to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is "a person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of their nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him/herself of the protection of that country." An immigrant is a foreign national who is issued a visa to live and work permanently in the United States. In most cases, a relative or employer sponsors the individual by filing an application with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Immigrants come to the U.S. for a variety of reasons, such as joining family members or for educational and work opportunities, but not because they have a fear of persecution in their native country. They usually have time to make arrangements to leave their country — selling or renting their home, gathering important documents, making travel arrangements, and saying good-bye to loved ones. Oftentimes they are sponsored by family members who will assist them with basic needs and adjustment to U.S. culture when they arrive.
Refugees come to the U.S. to escape persecution or dangerous situations such as war in their own country. They often leave their homes quickly, possibly fleeing danger. They rarely have time to make any arrangements, gather important documents, or say good-bye to loved ones. In fact, depending on the situation, they may leave their home and not know the fate or whereabouts of their family members, which causes a lot of stress. They often live in refugee camps in neighboring countries while waiting for their application for resettlement to be processed. The camps vary in the support and resources provided. Some camps may be well-established and have organized housing, food distribution, and education opportunities, while others may lack even the basics of clean water and sanitation. When refugees arrive in the U.S. they receive services and support from one of the ten national voluntary agencies that have contracts with the U.S. government in the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. They often have to learn a whole new culture and language without the support of extended family.
Challenges Faced by Refugees
Mental health is an area of concern for resettled refugees. Due to the extremely stressful circumstances typically associated with their departure from their own country and their journey to the U.S., Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is a real concern when assisting refugees. Post-Traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to one or more terrifying events in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. It is a severe and ongoing emotional reaction to an extreme psychological trauma. This stressor may involve someone's actual death or a threat to the patient's or someone else's life, serious physical injury, or threat to physical and/or psychological integrity, to a degree that usual psychological defenses are incapable of coping.
- inability to get along with others, particularly in close relationships
- paranoia and distrust
- unwillingness to discuss or revisit in any way the site of the trauma
- persistent, intense fear and anxiety
- feeling easily irritated or agitated
- having difficulty concentrating
- feeling numb or detached
- no longer finding pleasure in previously enjoyable activities
- feeling helpless or "out of control"
- experiencing intense survivor guilt
- being preoccupied with the traumatic event
- physical symptoms such as headaches, gastrointestinal distress, or dizziness
- suicidal thoughts, plans, or gestures
More information about how to assist refugees who are suffering from PTSD is available from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. If refugee students or their family members display these symptoms, it is important that the school and/or their sponsoring organization assist them in getting professional help and treatment. Work with school social workers or counselors to help students who are experiencing PTSD.
Limited Formal Education
Refugees often have lived for many years in a country with an unstable infrastructure due to extreme poverty, war, or disasters. This means that many children (and adults) may not have had an opportunity to attend school and learn basic skills in their own language. For older children and adults this can significantly affect their learning when they begin school in the U.S. In my district for example, we have many Somali students who begin ninth grade and have never learned to write in their own language — this presents an additional challenge when learning new vocabulary and English script.
Students with interrupted formal education are not less intelligent than other students their age, and they do not need special education referrals to address these issues. They simply need an opportunity to learn basic skills and receive very skilled and intentional instruction to accelerate their learning. For high school students, they must complete in four years what mainstream students have 13 years to finish. (To read more about how to assess whether ELL students need Special Education services, see How to Address Special Education Needs in the ELL Classroom.)
I would also like to underscore that refugee students do not come to us "knowing nothing," as I have heard some teachers express in frustration. It may seem that way when they are compared with other students their age, but refugee students have learned skills in survival and decision-making through intense exposure to dramatic global issues that most of their peers probably have not experienced. They are capable of learning English and the skills necessary to be successful academically; it will just take longer than mainstream students and even other ELL students who have had formal education in their own language in their home country.
Lack of Documentation
Because refugees leave their homes due to crisis, they rarely have important documents with them that assist them in navigating U.S. culture. Refugees may lack birth certificates, vaccination records, marriage certificates, and educational transcripts. Most of these items are re-created and certified through the U.S. government resettlement process, but there still may be mistakes. Birth certificates may have incorrect years on them, and students may actually be older or younger than expected for a certain grade level. It is also interesting to note that some cultures do not place such importance on birthdays and documentation of birth, so when the refugee application is processed they are often given a birthday of January 1st. This may cause confusion in school records when the district enrollment shows two Mohamed Mohamed's that have the same birth date. Working with these records requires careful attention on everyone's part, particularly counselors and school administrators.
One area that has been especially challenging in our district is the acceptance of high school transcripts from other countries. When placing ELL students in high school courses, counselors evaluate their transcript to determine if they have already successfully completed some required courses and to determine correct grade-level placement. If a student successfully completed biology in the home country, he or she does not need to take it again just because it is in English. Verifying transcripts from other countries can be difficult, especially when they are from educational institutions in countries that have experienced a lot of turmoil. The majority of refugee students who come to my district do not have a transcript from their own country, and even if they say they have completed required courses, counselors have no way to give credit for it. If a newly enrolling high school ELL student does not have an official transcript he or she is automatically placed in 9th grade. This has caused some distress in refugee students (especially older teens) who want to complete high school quickly and move on to college. Counselors who work with the student and family, however, can help them understand the benefits of four years of free schooling in English before they enroll in college.
As educators we also have an opportunity and a responsibility to help refugee parents understand the U.S. educational system and how they can best help their child succeed. In many other countries, the teacher is responsible for educating the child, and the parent is not expected to be involved. It is very different in the U.S., and refugee parents may not understand the expectations. Depending on their cultural background, they may be confused as to why the teacher would expect the parents to assist in educating their child. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of having a bilingual staff member or family liaison in your school to communicate effectively with refugee families and address areas of concern. The organization Bridging Refugee Youth & Children's Services (BRYCS) offers some ideas in Involving Refugee Parents in Their Children's Education.
The federal government places refugee families in specific states and provides basic support for their resettlement. A representative from a local agency often identifies a place for the family to live when they arrive, and assists them with initial integration into the culture. Though refugees are entitled to a small amount of cash assistance upon arrival and are eligible to apply for additional time-limited assistance, it is necessary for most refugee adults to look for work very soon after arrival. Children are enrolled in school, and adults are encouraged to take ESL classes to learn English. As the family adjusts to their new life, they may decide that there are better opportunities in another part of the U.S. and relocate to another state. This has happened often in Minnesota, where family members have relocated to the Twin Cities area to be with other family members.
Social service agencies often recognize the extensive needs of refugee families and enlist the services of translators, health professionals and established community members from the refugee's country to provide the necessary assistance. A common area of concern in Minnesota is helping refugees (who mainly arrive from very warm climates) to find and wear appropriate clothing for the cold weather. Some of the things that we take for granted, such as how to turn on a stove or pay an electric bill, may be very challenging for refugee families, and they need support to learn the skills they will need in their new country.
You Are Welcome Here (#DearbornWelcome) is an award-winning 20-minute film from Colorín Colorado highlighting how the Dearborn, MI public school district is helping its immigrant students succeed. The film features Salina Elementary School and Salina Intermediate School in the South End of Dearborn which serve large populations of families from Yemen. Related resources, videos, and interviews are also available.
What You Can Do to Support Refugee Students
Determine a "welcome" process for your school
This will ensure the refugee students and families feel welcome when they arrive, and that everyone knows what their role will be in enrolling new students throughout the year. Be sure to include a process of assessment so teachers will have consistent information on newly enrolling refugee students.
- Learn about your students
Learn as much as you can about refugee students' cultures, and invite students to share their knowledge with their classmates.
- Help students and families find resources they need
Develop a list of community resources such as food and clothing shelves, health care centers, and adult ESL classes. Have the information on hand to share at conferences or other family events.
- Get to know the families by having regular meetings
Consider what works best for the families — if they live in a concentrated area with a community center you may want to hold the meetings in their neighborhood. Be sure to have bilingual support, food and childcare. Federal funds can be used to provide transportation as well.
- Remember that students may be under a lot of stress
Even as students appear to adjust, they may be worrying about family members in their home country, or about difficulties adjusting to the new culture and language. Look for signs of stress and work with school social workers or counselors and the family to develop a plan to help the student reduce anxiety. Welcoming and Orienting Newcomer Students to U.S. Schools, published by BRYCS, offers some excellent suggestions for helping students adjust.
- Integrate the students' cultural and country information into your weekly classroom routines
This will help them maintain pride in their country, and to help them share information with their peers. Teachers can create a "News" corner that contains information about the students' home country, or have Friday "Music Madness" day and have students bring in music to share.
- Increase exposure to language
Have simple English phrases and pictures posted around the room and the school.
- Keep students engaged
Identify appropriate resources and support activities to keep the newly enrolled students engaged in learning even while their English skills are still very low. Try to make the learning time meaningful (by doing group work with other students who speak the same language), but not exhausting for the student (like writing a summary in English.)
- Pair students with trained peers who can serve as "buddies"
Create a school ambassador program with trained peers to guide newly enrolled refugee students through their first weeks of school.
- Use age appropriate materials
For older students who need to develop initial literacy skills, work with other staff to provide age-appropriate materials that allows the students to practice their developing skills, but doesn't require them to complete activities designed for young children.
In my experience with refugee students, I have been deeply impressed by their resiliency, determination, and overall positive attitude. It can be easy for me to forget what has occurred in their past and the challenges their families may be facing because my students are focused so positively on the opportunities before them and their bright future. They may have had no choice in leaving their home country when the "grass was burning under their feet," but instead of looking back, many of them look forward to "greener pastures" as they build their new life in the U.S. with educational success. Through increased understanding of the refugee experience, teachers will be better able to meet their students' needs and be a resource in educating other students and adults on the refugee experience, and the continuing need for inclusion and support.
Booklists, Videos, and More
A book can be a great way to introduce a particular conflict or issue to students or colleagues. These booklists include books for children, young adults, and school or community professionals. Due to the violent nature of the conflicts described, however, we encourage you to review titles carefully before recommending them or using them in the classroom.
These online resources provide background information on refugees and highlight numerous materials from related organizations that educators can use support refugee students and families. We also have a special page on Syrian refugees.
Educator voices: Refugees in the classroom
These video excerpts highlight the many ways that educators can support refugees and newcomers in the ELL classroom. Full interviews are available in the Meet the Experts section and Meet the Author section, and the clips are also available on YouTube.