Skip to main content
Usable Knowledge

We See You

What Syrian refugee students wish their teachers knew
Illustration from REACH animation depicting refugees

Many young refugee students around the world share something in common: Their futures are often extremely uncertain. Conflicts that sent them and their families to live and learn in other locations are not over and done in a few months. On average, conflicts last between 10 and 20 years, leaving a return for refugee students to their countries of origin near impossible. 

Yet, as the Refugee REACH initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education reports in their new collaborative research project, ReBuild, with the Peace Research Institute Oslo, refugee young people still choose to go to school while displaced “because they imagine that opportunities will follow.” They imagine passing end-of-year exams and going on to college or the next level of school. They imagine making new friends, feeling secure, and contributing to their communities — both to their conflict-affected home and to the place they call home for the moment. 

Unfortunately, opportunities don’t always mesh with hopes for young refugees. “They are frequently unwelcome in their places of exile, experience constant fears that their refugee status will be taken away, and face severe limitations on access to higher education and the rights to work, own property, and be contributing members of society,” write the project’s research team, which includes HGSE Associate Professor Sarah Dryden-Peterson; social scientist and HGSE doctoral alumus Vidur Chopra of Teacher's College; and Joumana Talhouk and Carmen Geha, both of the American University of Beirut.

They wondered, is there a way that education can narrow this gap between the opportunities refugee students imagine and those that are actually possible in their current settings? In an effort to learn from refugee young people about their experiences and their ideas on narrowing this gap, the team spent eight months observing displaced Syrian ninth-graders learning in schools in Lebanon and more than 100 hours interviewing them, along with teachers and their families. 

What they learned is that there are ways that teachers can help narrow the gap. Some of those ways include: 

For Policymakers

INSIGHT:  Refugee young people describe “being behind.” They literally come behind national students as they attend school only in the afternoons and for a shorter amount of time. They also struggle to catch up on years of lost schooling and to learn in a new language.   ►  ACTION: While refugee young people recognize that “there’s no country that favors others over their own citizens,” education leaders can mitigate these feelings of being behind through equalizing access to resources and supports and allocating them to the specific needs of refugee students, including increased instructional hours,  remedial learning during or after regular school hours, and language support. 

INSIGHT: Refugee young people describe challenges in finding spaces where they can discuss their identities, their histories, and their experiences of exclusion. As one student described, the teachers often say, “Don’t interfere with politics. We’re here to study not to talk about these issues.”   ►  ACTION: Even when it is not possible to address issues of identity, exclusion, and politics in the formal content and curriculum, education leaders can provide teachers with adequate instructional autonomy to welcome informal conversations and additional discussions that allow students to appropriately explore questions around their identities, their displacements and current experiences in exile.

INSIGHT: Refugee young people describe valuing pedagogies of predictability, pedagogies of explaining, pedagogies of fairness, and pedagogies of care (see below For Educators).  ►  ACTION: Education leaders can support teachers in cultivating these pedagogies. Pedagogies of predictability and explaining are often emphasized in existing teacher training, which teachers of refugees need access to. Pedagogies of fairness and care are relational practices that are often overlooked in teacher professional development and can be usefully included. Learning and practicing these pedagogies takes time and requires professional development that is targeted, comprehensive, and ongoing. 

For Educators

INSIGHT: Refugee young people find great value in pedagogies of predictability, including a calm environment and clear expectations.   ►  ACTION: Refugee young people are better able to learn when the classroom environment feels predictable in having a set schedule, being calm and not too noisy, and having clearly communicated and collectively established expectations for student behaviors.

INSIGHT: Refugee young people find great value in pedagogies of explaining, including answering questions and making materials relevant.   ►  ACTION: Refugee young people are better able to catch up and overcome feelings of “being behind” when their teachers focus on explaining the content they teach, including using simple terms (especially when language terms are complicated or in a new language), answering questions, reinforcing ideas and concepts, focusing on processes rather than facts, and engaging with students on the relevance of what they are learning.

INSIGHT: Refugee young people find great value in pedagogies of fairness, supporting them to navigate the inequities they experienced in their education and opportunities.   ►  ACTION: Refugee young people want to be taught the same materials as national students. They appreciate teachers who recognize their different needs, including when teachers translate to reduce the language barriers. They value teachers who support them in making relevant some content that feels exclusionary or does not recognize them since they are without the same rights and opportunities as national students.

INSIGHT: Refugee young people find great value in pedagogies of care, including listening, kindness, and welcome.   ►  ACTION: Refugee young people are better able to learn and feel motivated to achieve their future goals when their teachers get to know them as individuals, including listening to their ideas and concerns, approaching them with kindness, and as one student described a teacher who, “didn’t at all make us feel that we were entering a country that isn’t ours.”

Usable Knowledge

Connecting education research to practice — with timely insights for educators, families, and communities

Related Articles