What happens to children who flee war-ravaged homelands and resettle elsewhere? The world will face that question with particular urgency over the next decade, as vast numbers of refugees from Syria and other conflict zones stream across borders.
When these children reach their final asylum and enter new schools, their turbulent histories are often hidden by “language barriers, privacy concerns, cultural misunderstandings, and stereotypes,” according to a new report by HGSE Assistant Professor Sarah Dryden-Peterson. But unless their experiences as migrants — sporadic schooling, language confusion, poor instruction, and discrimination, for instance — are understood, refugee children in the United States and elsewhere may continue to feel rootless. They may be unable to cultivate a sense of belonging or a positive relationship with teachers and peers, and they may remain disconnected from the support services they need.
“One of the particular black boxes for teachers of refugees in the US is about these children’s previous educational experiences,” says Dryden-Peterson. “While previous waves of refugees to the U.S. rarely had access to school before they arrived, current refugees usually have. This very question is actually what brought me to this work in the first place. As a middle school teacher of refugee students in Boston, I felt I did not know enough about their prior educational experiences to be a good teacher for them.”
In the new paper, published by the Migration Policy Institute, Dryden-Peterson looks at how pre-resettlement histories can affect refugee children’s academic experiences later in their school lives. She draws on extensive data from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), as well as her own field-based research on refugee children’s educational experiences in countries of first asylum – such as Somali refugees in Kenya and Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
Here are five things U.S. educators should know about the refugee children in their communities:
These findings, Dryden-Peterson says, should inform decisions of U.S. educators about children’s grade placement, remedial assistance strategies, and ongoing learning support.
Sarah Dryden-Peterson's work is helping us to understand the dimensions of quality education for some of the world's most marginalized children, especially those living in poverty and affected by conflict. How can education provide pathways to strong communities, even in the midst of uncertainty?