Addressing the Needs of Refugee Students
posted on March 22, 2018 by Rachel White, M.Ed. Refugees of New Mexico, Highland High School
“On top of trying to navigate school in a language that they don’t understand, most refugees are dealing with some degree of PTSD from the traumatic experiences that they have endured.”
The refugee crisis is a hot button issue right now, but few truly understand the plight that refugees endure. For the 1% of refugees worldwide that are granted resettlement in a third country, they face an entirely new set of challenges. While they no longer have to fear for their lives due to persecution, adjusting to an entirely new culture is an arduous undertaking.
Try to imagine being born in a refugee camp somewhere in Tunisia or Tanzania, your parents aren’t exactly sure because they have been in and out of camps in different countries for the past 16 years.
One of the most substantial challenges that young refugees face is the American school system. I know this because I work as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at the high school that enrolls the largest number of refugee students in the state of New Mexico.
In order to gain some perspective, imagine you are sitting in school as a 4th grader and the building gets bombed. You watch friends and teachers die, but you get out alive. Your country is in a civil war so the school doesn’t get rebuilt and you are unable to attend school for 5 years, until your family gets granted refugee status in the United States. This is the case with one of my Syrian students who enrolled at my high school this year.
Or try to imagine being born in a refugee camp somewhere in Tunisia or Tanzania, your parents aren’t exactly sure because they have been in and out of camps in different countries for the past 16 years. You have only managed to go to school for a total of 3 years before arriving in the U.S. and enrolling in high school. This is the case with one of my students who arrived last February.
Better yet, imagine that where you are from, girls are not allowed to go to school. You have always dreamed of going to school, but for you, education has always been just that, a dream. Because of terrorism in your country, your family flees, applies for refugee status, and gets accepted for resettlement in the United States. You enroll in your first day of school, ever, as a 16 year old. This is the case with a number of my Middle Eastern students.
Have some perspective? Don’t forget that these students don’t speak any English.
The most obvious challenge that school-aged refugees face is the language barrier. They often arrive with little to no proficiency in English. At the high school level, this is an especially daunting challenge because students are required to enroll in age-appropriate classes that count towards graduation, like Algebra 1, New Mexico History, and Biology, regardless of whether or not they are foundationally prepared. The new refugee students typically have one period of ESL class, but the rest of their day is spent in regular education classes with teachers who are not trained in working with English learners and don’t know how to make the content accessible to them.
On top of trying to navigate school in a language that they don’t understand, most refugees are dealing with some degree of PTSD from the traumatic experiences that they have endured.
There are many other challenges that may seem minimal to us, but can prove to be obstacles for refugee students, such as using a computer for the first time, learning to read and write a new alphabet, trying to grasp the concept of taking notes, and even organizing a notebook or backpack.
Districts across the country have implemented “newcomer” programs, or even whole schools dedicated to providing assistance to new immigrant students who are learning English.
Our systems are not prepared to meet their needs and it’s time for us to put a more comprehensive and thoughtful approach to schooling on behalf of these young people and their families. Refugee students face tremendous obstacles in schools, so supports like these are imperative to the success of our new American students.