Providing support in the classroom for student refugees (opinion)

Compassion is the hallmark of a good educator, but with multiple crisis situations happening around the world, now more than ever educators need to focus their attention on compassion and kindness. I am a professor with over 20 years of experience working with students from diverse backgrounds, including refugees from Eritrea, Afghanistan, Russia, Yemen, Iraq, Iran and now Ukraine.

Watching the news, I cannot get a little Ukrainian boy out of my mind—he looked so happy carrying a Superman action figure with him. The news reporter asked him where his father was, and the little boy looked up at the reporter with so much pride and said, “My father is Superman. He stayed back in Ukraine to fight the Russians so we can all go back home.”

The trauma this little boy must be going through is unimaginable. Being a mother myself, I can only begin to fathom what it must have been like to try to explain the bomb blasts happening outside his bedroom window or why his dad won’t be with him for a little while. Not to mention that he may not see his home or country in the same way ever again.

As teachers, we have a very important role in facilitating the emotional well-being of our students. When they come from situations like what has been unfolding in Ukraine, that role increases exponentially.

Research on refugee education also emphasizes the importance of providing a place of safety and belonging in educational institutions. In an article for the British Educational Research Journal, notable refugee-education researchers Joanna McIntyre and Sinnika Neuhaus refer to a comment by Ravi Kohli in which he says that education is the “resumption of an ordinary life.” In the same article, they quote Maria Hayward saying that she feels schools are places of safety with the potential for providing spaces for healing. An article by Christine Massing, assistant professor of education at University of Regina, in the International Review of Education included a collection of research writings on helpful strategies for refugee education.

Providing Safe Spaces

To do my part as an instructor of refugee students, I make sure to provide a safe space for students to express themselves and tell their stories. I make assignments to provide an opportunity for everyone to write about themselves if they choose. The biggest and most important element is trust, which allows students to unleash their feelings as they recount the tragic events that have happened in their lives. It is cathartic when students ask to discuss their experiences by openly sharing the content of their writings in the class. Students have talked about their escape from their country of origin, stating the perilous routes and ways they took to reach America. In the process some lost their loved ones. It’s important for everyone but especially refugees to have this support system in which others are listening and validating your feelings. This helps students to reclaim their identity.

Very often students will follow up on their writing and discussion in class to speak to me in my office about things they could not write and speak about. I see and hear anger, anxiety, frustration and hopelessness, and they often cry for a long time. I am honored that they feel that I have created a safe space and culture of care for them.

I also spend a lot of time in building a community in the classroom, which is essential to encourage the support and confidence among students who have been ripped from their home communities. Acceptance, respect and understanding from fellow students goes a long way in creating a positive bond and learning experience.

Building Community and Celebrating Diversity

Recently, while watching the news on TV, I saw a pianist play piano at the Polish-Ukrainian border, pouring his heart out as the distraught refugees came in from Ukraine. He told the news reporter that he traveled from Germany for 17.5 hours so he could greet refugees and bring peace through music. The news reporter said his name was Davide Martello, and he also played piano in Minneapolis to bring a message of love, healing, peace and hope at the memorial of George Floyd.

I have tried to bring peace and acceptance in my English composition classes by integrating learning with the prior experiences of students. I have planned class sessions where students learn using dances of the world, encouraging them to speak about culture and why dance is so special. I have found dances to be instrumental in bringing out the emotions of students and also as a means of establishing connections with each other in the class. Several students write nostalgically about how they were part of a dance performance in school in their native country.

Assignments such as this also celebrate diversity as students find a common and safe space to interact with one another. Most of the time, they make lifelong connections, as they feel they come from similar situations and can talk to each other about it. This also helps to integrate refugee students with nonrefugee students and creates a positive learning atmosphere.

An example of effectively building a community in the classroom is an assignment I designed for one of my literature classes, which included an activity that involved collaborative learning, critical thinking and comparative analysis. I assigned everyone a reading from the syllabus, and then I divided pages of the reading among different groups of students. Each group worked on their assigned pages with a comprehensive knowledge of the text, as we had already discussed it in class. They were each required to create a study guide, write a summary and critical analysis of their assigned pages, and draw a Venn diagram that covered the entire spectrum of the information contained in their assigned pages. Each group then had to design one class activity based on the Venn diagram that included their real-life experiences and the learning they could provide others. This was an effective assignment that was very much a component of creating learning communities that engaged the entire class. Students were able to connect their previous learning with the present project and found themselves in an important role: helping, supporting and facilitating members of their learning community.

I also aligned this assignment with the learning objectives of this course to provide a learning process of positive value to all students. In evaluating this assignment, I realized that students actually had a strong learning experience from the quality of the work that was submitted to me in addition to their high motivation and enthusiasm. Further, I conducted an evaluation of this assignment to see if students had a comprehensive learning experience, and they responded quite favorably.

Former and current students have told me how much stronger it has made them to have social interaction in class. They study together, take classes together and support each other. Their families also begin to interact, even though they hadn’t known each other before their children met each other in class. My students usually invite me to weddings, baby showers, graduations and most family events, where I see them and their families having a good time. Recently, I was invited to a wedding of a former student whose best friend was also my former student. The students were from the same country, and both came to the United States as refugees along with their parents and extended families. They became friends as they participated in my class and worked together in groups. Their friendship led to the two families meeting and socializing. Today, they are one extended family of people who understand each other. As the wedding ceremony began, I saw some more of my former students entering the marriage venue to celebrate this joyous occasion. They were from different countries but also came to this country as refugees. This support system is exactly what they need.

Offering safe spaces for open dialogue, creating a community and celebrating diversity will help us all cope with the global crises affecting our world today. It will especially help students who have been ripped from their own community learn how to cope and move forward. And it all starts in the classroom.

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