Optimism Stronger than Fear

Immigrant and refugee children are resilient and determined to contribute. Will we stop them — or support them?

March 1, 2017
Optimism Stronger than Fear

As an ELL teacher working in one of the most diverse cities in Massachusetts, I teach students who have come here from across the globe. They have fled wars in Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They have grown up in refugee camps in Thailand and escaped violence in El Salvador. They have walked alone and on foot across many lands to reach ours.

My students carry with them their resilience, passions, and optimism. They see themselves as Americans and are determined to contribute to their community. Many have already begun this important work — starting school mentoring programs, writing op-eds on community issues, and proposing policy to support the academic futures of their peers.

Five ways to support immigrant and refugee students, starting with: Reiterate your commitment.

The last month has been difficult for my students and for me, as it likely has been for so many students and teachers across the country. The actions and rhetoric of the new administration, and particularly President Trump’s recent executive order banning refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries, threatens the futures and success of my students.

I have many students from among the seven banned countries, and many more Muslim students from other countries. Common to all my students, no matter their birthplace, their religion, their ethnicity, is the fear that they will be targeted next.

In class last week, I gave my students the opportunity to share their thoughts. Heads down, many wrote feverishly. Others stared off into the distance, “How do I get it all down on paper?” one boy asked, “I just have so much I am feeling.”

What they wrote was heartbreaking.

“Will I be able to ever see my father?” “My parents are from Colombia, but will the government come after them next?” “Why are they targeting my Muslim friends?” And from one 18-year-old Muslim girl: “I don’t understand why Americans hate me.”

How can we, as teachers, respond in a way that supports and protects our students? Here are some initial ideas:

  • Reiterate your commitment
    This is the most important: Make sure your students know you are there for them. Even if we can’t answer all of their questions, it is important that our students know we will do our best to preserve their futures. Hearing this simple message is important. If you can, ask key school leadership to reiterate that message publicly, or to come speak with classes individually. Try to make space in class and out, for students to share what they are feeling and ask questions. Can you allow students a space to write and discuss during class? Realizing that some students might be worried about speaking publicly, carve out space before or after school where students can speak with you one on one.
  • Read up on your students’ countries; know their histories
    To be effective advocates and defenders of our global students, it is essential to know their histories and the histories of their countries. Understanding the conflicts they have survived, the obstacles they have overcome, and the traditions and cultures they bring will help you become a more effective advocate. There are a number of organizations, including the Cultural Orientation Resource Center and the Center for Applied Linguistics, which have created guides to help.
  • Know your rights — and your students’ rights
    In recent weeks, I have found myself again and again admitting to my students: “I don’t know.”  It’s an uncomfortable feeling when I can see how much my students crave answers and stability. But as teachers, we know that knowledge is power and information can help build confidence. One concrete step is to organize and hold “Know your Rights” workshops at your school or even in your classroom. Immigration organizations across the country are running such workshops in schools and communities. The American Civil Liberties Union has also created an extensive online resource guide detailing legal rights in a range of situations. United We Dream also has an online toolbox with a clear explanation of immigrants' legal rights. 
  • Connect with your community
    Reach out to local organizations in your community that support refugees and immigrants. Cities serving as hubs for resettling new families will have numerous organizations that help immigrants start a new life. In most cities, there will also be many smaller programs supporting immigrant communities, often run by the communities themselves. These leaders and organizations can be powerful allies and partners, and can be essential resources to your students and their families.
  • Encourage student activism
    Use these events as opportunities to encourage students to become civically involved. While being careful not to promote particular political parties, do provide students with the tools to make their voice heard. Encourage students to write letters to their representatives or to attend town hall meetings. In the long term, look into ways to incorporate active civic curriculums (Generation Citizen has a particularly strong national program, as I’ve written about here) into your classes, ensuring that all students have the skills to speak up effectively.

In these uncertain times, I find that my students’ optimism and drive to do good are my greatest sources of inspiration. They are unwaveringly committed to strengthening our communities and our country. As teachers we have the honor — and the responsibility — to ensure that they have the best chance to do this.

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About the Author

Jessica Lander
Jessica Lander, a high school teacher and a 2015 graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes about education for Usable Knowledge, the Boston Globe, and other outlets. For two years, she wrote a regular series of blogs for Usable Knowledge about her experiences as a new teacher. With Karen Mapp and Ilene Carver, she is a co-author of Powerful Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide to Engaging Families for Student Success.  Follow her on Twitter at @jessica_lander
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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.