How Can Educators Champion for Refugee Students’ Integration in School and Life?


It’s already October, kids are back to school. Yes, finally!

You might feel that way if you are a parent. Maybe not, if you are a student. Back to school can be a time of anxiety. You have to deal with the pressure to fit in and the navigation of lunch table politics.

But imagine dealing with all that a world away from your place of origin. Imagine being uprooted through no fault of your own, and everything and everyone you know stays behind, and you have to start over in a new country and a new culture. This is what happens to many new immigrant and refugee students who come to the United States. Immigrants come to the U.S. because of various circumstances. Some come for economic reasons, and others are fleeing persecution and unrest in their home countries. In this article, my focus is on the immigrants who come to our U.S shores and borders as refugees.

For many refugees fleeing persecution and unrest in their home countries, the road to safety can be hazardous and even take years. Even when they make it to the U.S., starting a new life, in a new country and culture is difficult.

As it is to be expected, every kid wants to feel that they belong and fit in their school environment; and students who come from different countries are no different. They face all types of challenges, and one of the biggest stressors I know from personal experience is the feeling of isolation. Many immigrants come from collective cultures, where there is a sense of community. It is understandable that they find it hard to integrate into the American individualistic society.

The same goes with refugee kids once they begin school. Many refugee students experience a sense of loneliness and confusion, because of the lack of culturally relevant school orientation. They don’t know how to connect with their peers, especially kids who are not used to seeing people from different origins and backgrounds. I can still remember my daughter coming home after school when she was in the first grade, crying because a classmate had taunted her about her black skin. “Did your mom drink too much black coffee when she was pregnant with you?” The little girl asked my daughter. Granted, these words have a racial connotation, but children are not racist. They only act out of what they don’t know; what they have not been taught due to the lack of exposure and learning about other people and cultures. Furthermore, most immigrant and refugee students are constantly surrounded by negative messages, and don’t see enough positive role models who look like them, represented as successful-hard working people.

With so much going on in our current social environment, now more than ever before, communities need to come together and build each other up. And it begins with each one of us, doing what we can, from where we are, and with what we have. Below are five insights to help school educators, as well as the host communities meet the needs of refugee students and support them in their integration.

  1. Acknowledge students’ individual needs

One of the biggest mistakes educators make is assuming that all refugee students have the same needs. For example, when it comes to English, some students come to the U.S. already fluent, some are not fluent, but manage to understand or speak a little English, and yet, some students may have never set foot in school.

Some students come from well-to do families, while others never saw a stove, or a flushing toilet (inside the house people! Okay, maybe it was just me). Some students may come from private schools, while others struggled to pay their school fees.

The point is, not all refugee students have the same story. So, it is important to meet them where they are, and give them the appropriate support they need to be successful.

2. Reset your mind when it comes to stereotypes and biases

I once gave a presentation at a high school on this very topic of stereotypes and biases. One of the exercises I gave students was to come up with an example of stereotype they have faced, due to their racial or cultural background. One Asian girl shared that she had endured the “smart Asian” stereotype. She said: “When I asked for help in math, some students, even teachers told me, ‘you’re Asian. You’re supposed to help others with math, not ask for help’.”  And she added that, because of this stereotype, she felt ashamed and never wanted to ask for help again. Most immigrants endure all kinds of stereotypes coming from people who are either uninformed, or simply insensitive of other cultures and people. Check your stereotypes and biases and ask yourself how they affect others.

School should be an environment where students feel welcome and accepted for who they are. Where educators feel they can bring their authentic selves to work and innovate.

3. Increase the number of educators of diverse backgrounds

Representation matters. A big part of helping refugee and new immigrant students is to increase the number of educators of diverse backgrounds, to reflect the fabric of our modern society. You can’t aspire to be what you don’t see. And students of all backgrounds need to see themselves in the educators they have.

4. Have mentors from the host community

The stress that comes from being uprooted, as well as the fact that some families have to endure poverty and discrimination can be alleviated by community mentoring. This is where parents and even other students can help. Exchanging knowledge and stories with refugee students, and opening spaces of welcome for them to release their trauma will help them integrate in their new community.

5. Build partnerships between schools and nonprofit organizations

This is a tremendous way to support refugee students, and tailor services and programs that meet not only their needs, but also the needs of their families.

Note: A version of this article first appeared in the Seattle’s Child Magazine; the October 2019 issue.