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How Schools Can Support Refugee Families and Students

Oct 13, 2021

The indelible images of Afghans hanging onto the wings of American airplanes at Kabul Airport and Haitians being whipped while attempting to cross the Rio Grande river have ignited intense discussion among the American public about our responsibility to refugees and migrants and the racist history of our immigration policy. As policymakers debate about resettlement of Afghan refugees and whether to grant asylum to Haitian asylees, there are thousands of refugees and asylees who are settling in various states. School leaders must ensure that refugee students get an equitable, high-quality education and that their social-emotional needs are met.

In 2019, 43% of refugees resettled in the U.S. were under the age of 18. As refugee students enter into K-12 education system, English acquisition is often the No. 1 concern because proficiency in English is important to refugee students’ long-term academic success in the U.S. However, refugee students’ academic success is not solely dependent on their proficiency in English. Proficiency in home language(s) is equally important. (Note: Many refugee students are multilingual.) When refugee students are learning their home language(s) and English at school, they perform better academically, including their learning in English. Practices such as dedicated times and spaces for each language and library with books representing students’ multiple home languages are helpful to support students’ learning. In addition, schools can support home language(s) learning at home through developing workshops and curricula for parents to support home language development.

Because of their pre-migration experience and migration journey to the U.S., many refugee students have witnessed and/or experienced significant trauma that negatively impacts their mental health, which in turn, affects their learning. Refugee students also experience distress after migration that can impact their academic success. Some are grieving and some are experiencing discrimination because of their race, ethnicity, religion, and/or home language(s). Therefore, schools have the responsibility to provide services to meet the mental health needs of refugee students. In fact, school-based mental health services can be effective at supporting refugee students’ mental health. Multi-tiered mental health services that intentionally connect school, family, and community members to support refugee students are particularly helpful because these services create a system of individualized and coordinated supports for students to meet their social, emotional, and psychological needs needs at school, at home, and in their community.

To support the social, emotional, and academic success of refugee students, school leaders and educators need to engage their family members. Meaningful engagement goes beyond providing language supports to refugee family members. Schools should provide professional development opportunities for teachers to learn how to co-create and co-lead with refugee families. For example, school leaders can hire refugee parents as paraprofessionals to serve as community liaisons or other support staff positions that match their professional training (many refugees held professional jobs in their country of origin but may not be able to practice because of credentialing and licensing barriers). Encouraging refugee family members to participate in their children’s learning can also help support positive parent-child relationships and narrow the acculturation gap between refugee parents and their children. Often, refugee students learn English and become adjusted to U.S. culture faster than their parents; and such differences can be stressful and have a negative impact on students’ social and emotional well-being.

That’s why schools need to be a welcoming and inclusive environment. “Don’t feel sorry for refugees, believe in them,” says Luma Mufleh, founder of the Fugees Academy, an organization based in Atlanta and Columbus, Ohio, that provides year-round schooling that includes afterschool programs, summer camps, comprehensive wraparound services for students and families in addition to academic programming. The idea is that refugee students, families, and community members can come to the school to find all the necessary services. In addition, schools need to provide high-quality and culturally sustaining curricula to refugee students. Curricula that connects academic learning to their lived experience can be particularly impactful. For example, when teaching U.S. history, schools can consider student-led workshops to look at the history of U.S. immigration policies and the effects of such policies on other refugee communities.

For example, my paternal grandmother, four uncles, and four aunts left Saigon after the Vietnam War in 1979. After weeks at sea on a fishing boat, they arrived at a refugee camp in Indonesia. Six months later, they began their American life in Wildrose, North Dakota. A town of 235 residents with one grocery store and one gas station was my family’s first home in the U.S. Refugee communities are resourceful and resilient. Many refugee students thrive and succeed in the U.S. The responsibility of our schools is to provide the needed supports and create an inclusive learning environment to ensure that all refugee students succeed.

Our responsibility to newly arrived Afghan refugees and Haitian asylees goes beyond initial resettlement. “Their journeys are haunting, but what I see every day is hope, resilience, determination, a love of life and an appreciation for being able to rebuild their lives,” says Mufleh. To rebuild their lives, refugee families will need support. Let’s give it to them.