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How Relationships Matter for Refugee Students

Amid a bleak landscape, some refugees find educational success — offering a model for educators about what works
Illustration of a network of people connected across the world

Narratives about the education of refugee children are typically bleak. The majority of these children — 11 million globally — live in countries with overstretched education systems, many residing in camps unable to meet their basic needs. In Kenya’s Dadaab, until recently the largest refugee camp in the world, only 2.3 percent of children enter secondary school, and barely a quarter of those students are girls. Most spend their entire childhoods displaced.

Despite these obstacles, some refugees succeed academically, completing secondary school and pursuing higher education. New research into those educational journeys shows that relationships, at times aided by technology, are a key difference-maker for refugee children, helping them to persist in the face of overwhelming challenges.

A Study Focusing on Assets

International aid had been instrumental to the growth of schooling in Dadaab, where hundreds of thousands residents have fled from conflict in Somalia. In the past two decades, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, and the many international organizations have funded and established 26 schools in the complex.

What refugees need to succeed is not unlike the support that marginalized and isolated children across the world require: Relationships are key, allowing refugee children to persist in the face of overwhelming challenges.

But the new study — analyzing the trajectories of Somali refugees who have been successful in their education —  finds that while this international aid is fundamental, it’s part of a larger web of important supports. Close relationships with family, friends, and teachers, maintained both in-person and virtually, provide critical motivation and mentorship needed for academic success. 

The study, published by the American Educational Research Journal, was led by Sarah Dryden-Peterson and co-authored with Negin Dahya and Harvard Graduate School of Education doctoral candidate Elizabeth Adelman. It analyzed 21 in-depth interviews and 248 surveys with Somalis. Each of the people interviewed had completed secondary school in Dadaab. The survey respondents were all Somali adults who had completed secondary school; half had done so in a refugee camp. More than 80 percent had pursued some postsecondary education, and by the time of the study, many had resettled to Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The respondents revealed that refugees are creating webs of local and global supports that enable their educational success — supports that are not unlike those that other marginalized and isolated children across the world require.

From the surveys:

  • Support from physically close peers and mentors, virtually: A little under half of the respondents received support virtually — through email, texting, or social media — but 75 percent of the survey respondents who'd lived in refugee camps said that support was from people in their same geographic location. Career guidance was one of the highest ranked “virtual supports” for those who had lived in refugee camps, often given by geographically close friends and teachers.
  • Academic support: 81 percent of those who had resided in refugee camps said that traditional academic support — guidance about course selection, tutoring, or writing help, for example — was very important to their educational success. The most common sources of that academic support were teachers, friends, and family.
  • Emotional support: Girls in refugee camps received more virtual emotional support from family and friends; boys in refugee camps were more likely to receive it from teachers.

From the interviews:

  • Support from family: All students mentioned that their own personal determination to succeed was linked to having strong family support. Girls especially remarked how important it was that their mothers sometimes understood when schoolwork took precedence over chores.
  • Diverse teachers: Students noted that nationally trained Kenyan teachers (who are not refugees) helped them through the Kenyan curriculum, but teachers who were themselves refugees from Dadaab often provided stronger emotional support and mentorship, especially (and virtually) long after graduation.
  • A key role for peers, near and far: Study groups provided academic guidance, and older friends who had graduated served as mentors. Many students kept in touch with these friends virtually, years after their peers had resettled to a different part of the world.

All students mentioned that their own personal determination to succeed was linked to having strong family support. Girls especially remarked how important it was that their mothers sometimes understood when schoolwork took precedence over chores.

Facilitating Supportive Relationships — at Home and Around the Globe

This research indicates that as we look for ways to help refugee children achieve a higher level of education, it’s important to focus not just on the barriers they face, but also on what works.

Strong support from family, friends, and teachers is critical — and when those networks are spread across the globe, social media and texting can help fill in the gaps. “The expansion of personal technology has enabled individuals to build…relationships virtually to find globally situated relationships that were unavailable locally,” write the researchers. Many interviewed students reported that they were in constant contact, weekly or even daily, with mentors around the world who understood their daily struggles, relentlessly encouraged them to persist, and provided key academic resources.

Looking ahead, refugee programs could focus on intentionally cultivating these supports. They can work to:

  • Shift gender expectations so that parents are comfortable with their daughters balancing domestic work with school work.
  • Facilitate peer networks and study groups for refugee children.
  • Expand the accessibility of technology, especially smartphones, which can help combat the geographic isolation many refugee children feel and keep them connected to peers across the world.

“Refugee students’ motivation for education is so often tied to a desire to contribute to peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction in their countries of origin,” write Dryden-Peterson, Dahya, and Adelman. Connections to friends and family, near and far, can help refugee children see the “light at the end of the tunnel” of their own educational journeys, keeping them motivated to learn and strive for peace.

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