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When schools closed down due to the Covid-19 pandemic, refugee students faced special hurdles. Though many educators don’t distinguish between immigrants and refugees, the International Rescue Committee defines a refugee as someone “who has been forced to flee his or her home because of war, violence or persecution, often without warning.”
Since 2010, nearly 600,000 refugees have settled in the United States, and there is a big chance that many educators will encounter these students, who have already experienced trauma, violence and deep loss. For many, the pandemic has added to this load. We must understand what they have gone through to help them succeed long term.
As a college readiness coach at low-income high schools in San Diego, I talked to multiple high school refugee students to figure out how to support them, especially as many schools continue to operate remotely. (My interviews were conducted with their parents’ permission.)
Here are some ways to help refugee students this fall and beyond:
Hold weekly virtual small-group sessions. One senior student who had been in the U.S. for less than three years told me that he failed his first semester in high school because he assumed American education worked the same as in his country. “Back in my country, you only need to study for the final test and that determines your grade. You don’t need to do homework or anything. I failed. I failed all the classes during the first semester because no one told me,” he said. “That’s how I learned the system. After I failed.” This is one of the pieces that we sometimes miss as educators. We are so caught up in teaching the language, the curriculum, the culture, and so on, that we forget to teach refugee and immigrant students about the system of education in the United States and the paths that they can take to get to higher education.
That’s why, for refugee students especially, it’s useful to have an educator connect with them to help them with their academics and college planning, and to talk about how they are doing in this entire process. Virtual small-group sessions are an opportunity to discuss topics such as organizational skills, time management, self-care, understanding financial aid, choosing a career, meeting graduation requirements, and so on.
Also, have one-on-one meetings with students. Whenever possible, it is crucial for educators to check in with students to learn more about them beyond just academics. One student told me that he appreciated that his school asked him to complete a survey “about what I like to do besides academics and getting to actually know me.” He said, “Every single student should be asked about what they like to do,” and schools should “try to support students at the stuff they like. Maybe it will help them succeed.” Most refugee children miss the communities and loved ones they left back home, and it’s important to help them connect with their new communities and their teachers as they process those losses.
Meeting with students one-on-one is also crucial because it allows students to ask questions that they may not want to ask in front of the entire classroom. A senior student told me that “sometimes I don’t get what the teacher wants from the assignments and the projects that we are supposed to do. Sometimes I learn better when I am speaking one-on-one with the teacher because she explains it better for me, specifically with my English class.” Opening communication lines between educators and students is important to increase students’ confidence level and, eventually, help them succeed in classes.
Check in with parents. An important part of students’ education is their parents. When I asked some of the students which individuals have made a difference in their educational goals, most of them said their parents. So, we need to make sure that those parents are supported and included in the picture and that their voices are heard so that they can help with their students’ academics. One senior emphasized that he wanted his teachers to talk to his parents about his progress. “Some parents don’t know how to check grades and their English isn’t good,” he said, “but they want to know how their kids are doing at school. They care.” The news that we give to parents should include both the positive and the ways that students can improve. Students’ goals and aspirations should also be shared with parents so that they can further support them at home.
Communicate with teachers and provide professional development as needed. Many teachers haven’t worked with refugee students; this experience might be entirely new to them. Districts and schools should provide professional development to teachers and staff members to give them tools to help refugee students. Teachers should learn about refugee students’ cultures as much as possible to be able to connect with them and understand them better.
It is crucial for educators to check in with students to learn more about them beyond just academics.
Many refugee students have skipped school for multiple years because of war and instability in their home countries and/or because the countries that were hosting them didn’t allow them to attend school. It is important for teachers to know that many of those students had interrupted formal education, but they are not less intelligent than their peers. They need only a little bit more time to learn the material. Providing professional development to teachers will decrease their level of frustration when working with refugees.
All students want to achieve something. It’s up to educators to understand the struggles that they have been through and give them the resources to help them succeed. “My parents came here to give me better opportunities to study,” one refugee student told me. “I have to finish high school and go to college. I feel like my entire life will collapse, and my dreams will be destroyed, because I can’t do anything without graduating and going to college.”
Let’s make sure that we are doing our best to ensure that these students have all the tools they need to reach goals that are essential to both them and their families.
Dema Youhanna has a Master of Science in counseling, with an emphasis in school counseling. She has worked with K-12 students in low-income schools in the County of San Diego as a college readiness coach helping students with their college and financial aid applications. She is currently working as a Master’s Program Advisor at UC San Diego.
This story about refugee students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.