Refugee students’ cultural challenges

three high school girls outside school
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What can educators do to help their refugee students thrive in US schools?

Newcomer students face many cultural adjustments and this can be overwhelming and challenging. How can you help refugee students adjust to American culture?

Watch these three high school refugee students speak about their experiences in US schools.

The Refugee Center Online is now USAHello.

Here are some tips to help teachers support their refugee students.

1) Acknowledge mistakes

Juma shares his story of a soccer coach that called him by the wrong name. Juma places this story in a positive category because of the coach’s response: he apologizes directly. By admitting his mistake, he was able to demonstrate his concern for his students and knowing each and every one of them.

We will make many mistakes with our students. Work to fix your mistakes by acknowledging the mistake, and preparing yourself to handle it better, or differently, the next time the situation happens.

2) Explain and assess for understanding

It is very easy to answer a question with “yes.” Have you ever had trouble hearing or understanding someone, asked them to repeat what, and then become too embarrassed to ask again? As adults, we often respond with a nod and a forced smile. We must know that our language learners can feel the same emotions and pretend to understand when they do not.

Instead of asking, “Do you understand?” or “Do you have any questions?”, ask students to repeat back the instructions to you. Or, wait for students to begin a project or assignment and then return with the intention to be available for questions. Give students time to think, translate, and process.

3) Understand refugee students as individuals

An individual student from a country or region cannot speak for their culture any more than an American-born student could speak for the entire US. Encourage students to speak and provide their opinion, but do so in a way that values the student as an individual and not as a representative of their ethnic or racial background.

Discrimination also accidentally exists when educators automatically associate refugee students with minority groups and thus mask their individual needs and assets.

Try not to automatically associate refugees with seemingly obvious and physically similar counterparts. For example, Juma notes that his country is very far from another African country, yet they were assumed to be connected and share similar cultural backgrounds.

4) Ask refugee students about their lives and history

Beyond cultural backgrounds, your students all have their own individual stories.

Newcomer students sometimes face (unintentional) discrimination in schools. If educators accidentally reduce the refugee experience to one of being a victim, it directly affects the student’s achievement. It can lead to having different expectations of these students in comparison to their peers—the assumption being that they are “just too traumatized.”

Student’s experiences prior to attending a US school can be vastly different. Some may have had daily school in a refugee camp, some may have had irregular schooling. Some students may see themselves as victims, while others may not.

If a student is unable to overcome assumptions and stereotypes, or cannot assert their identity over the label of “refugee,” they may succumb to feelings of isolation and invisibility. Students’ personal histories and current needs must take precedence over the perceived trajectory of integration.

a young woman teacher helping little girl
Resources for teachers and supporters

Sign up for our online professional development class or find cultural background information about refugees and asylum seekers – useful for professional educators and anyone who wants to support newcomer families.

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Opinions expressed and advice given in USAHello’s Voices and Hello blogs are the writers’ own. USAHello offers impartial information and online courses to help newcomers in the USA.