Development & Education

Closing the borders to refugees also means shutting out children who need a better education

This story is a part of

Global Nation

This story is a part of

Global Nation

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Children inside a classroom at Za’atri refugee camp, host to tens of thousands of Syrians displaced by conflict, near Mafraq, Jordan.

Breaking the narrative of terrorism and extremism requires creating hope for the future. Yet more than half of US governors are participating in shutting the door on refugee children’s futures by saying refugees are simply not welcome in their states.

Right now, 2 million Syrian children are displaced outside of Syria and over five million more live amid devastating conflict inside its borders. Most of these children see no future in front of them.

We know what a future denied can lead to — for individuals, for families, for communities. We have the ability to change this narrative by welcoming refugees into our communities and by providing strong education for refugee children.

In a recent report published by the Migration Policy Institute, I outline what teachers of refugees need to know about their refugee students to help them succeed in school and become part of a new community.

The United States resettled more than 200,000 refugee children from 113 countries between 2002 and 2013. The histories that these children bring to classrooms in the US are multiple and varied. Common to the journeys that eventually bring them to the US are extended stays in refugee camps or urban areas in neighboring countries of asylum.

Access to education in these pre-arrival settings is uneven, and quality is often very poor. Refugee children often miss out on years of school due to acute conflict that makes their school buildings or routes to school unsafe. In exile, refugee children can face legal restrictions that bar their entry to school or find schools that are filled to capacity with few alternatives. In Turkey, 400,000 Syrian children are currently out-of-school. As a result, refugee children are often behind their age-appropriate grade level when they arrive in the US.

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Refugee children are also frequently exposed to multiple languages of instruction over the course of their migration, resulting in language confusion and difficulty mastering academic content. As a young Burundian refugee living in Tanzania, Henri followed the Tanzanian curriculum in English and Kiswahili during primary school, switched to the Burundian curriculum in French and Kirundi in secondary school, and then completed his secondary education using the Congolese curriculum in French. Now an adult, Henri’s experiences are quite typical, reflecting the politics of shifting policies about curriculum and language.

Teachers of refugees often have little training and inadequate resources for teaching. In exile, there can be classes of over 100 children. There is little space for children’s participation, and even very young children are expected to sit still and listen throughout the school day. In a school with large numbers of Somali refugees in Kenya, we observed 53 class periods and in only six of these classes was more than one question asked by children.

Pre-resettlement schooling also affects the way refugee children experience school in the US and the relationships they form with teachers and peers. The curriculum refugee children are exposed to in their countries of origin and in exile can be hard to relate to and can also be highly politicized and discriminatory. Refugee children also can feel singled out and made to feel explicitly that they do not belong. Syrian families with children in Egyptian schools described the bullying their children faced, blamed for economic troubles in Egypt and asked why they did not go back to home.

These experiences of schooling can shape the attitudes of refugee parents and children, making them wary of US schools and teachers. Teachers’ understanding of these previous experiences can help refugee children in the US to succeed academically and become part of their new communities. But American teachers often have vastly different expectations that children work in groups, ask questions, and engage in exploration. Refugee children often have no experience with these activities.

But our schools have the opportunity to open pathways to strong futures for Syrian children. In our increasingly interconnected world, these futures are essential for us all.

Sarah Dryden-Peterson is an Assistant Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Share your thoughts and ideas on Facebook at our Global Nation Exchange, on Twitter @globalnation, or contact us here