Teaching Refugees: The Research We Have & The Research We Need

On Saturday, April 15, Literacy Beat and friends go to Chicago and the American Educational Research Association annual meeting.

By Thomas DeVere Wolsey

Next Saturday, Dr. Thomas and colleagues from around the world will meet for a symposium in Chicago. The symposium will consist of the following presentations. Dr. Thomas will serve as chair for this symposium.

Ibrahim M. Karkouti – Social Support for Refugee Students

Jill Hallett, Annmarie Handley, Sussan Oladipo, and Rachel Lackey – Refugee Families and The Literacy Landscape: Schools, Libraries, and Changing Community Needs

Mohamed Elhess – Finding Spaces of Belonging on Campus: A Case Study of Refugee Students in America

Daria Mizza – Finding a Pathway to Unlocking Refugees’ Learning Potential: Current Challenges and Lifelong Technology-Enhanced Learning Solutions

Mehmet Karakus and Anas Hajar – Promoting the Well-being of Asylum-Seeking and Refugee Children0 Within and Beyond the School Gates: Insights from the United Kingdom

Laila Kajee – Teaching Refugee Children in Troubling Times

Thomas DeVere Wolsey – When Trauma as a Refugee Transcends Generations: How Teachers Might Be  Allies to Help Successive Generations Build Success


This symposium consists of seven presentations that explore how educators are meeting the demands of  the large and growing population of students who are refugees, and as important, to seek a consensus about what research that informs educational practice is still needed. Three themes include: 1. The built environment (e.g., schools and libraries) and tools (e.g., digital technology), 2. The social support that displaced students and their families need to be successful given the traumas they have encountered and continue to experience, and 3. The means by which educators can foster well-being as students.

Worldwide, large numbers of humans seek asylum or are internally displaced in their own countries (refugees, collectively). Of those, many are students in school or not in school or university.  While there is a great deal of attention given, appropriately, to the experiences of refugees, less attention has been afforded to the application of research to the teaching and school leadership practices teachers and other practitioners need to appropriately understand and serve children who are refugees. 

Refugees fleeing
Source: https://openclipart.org/detail/226376/refugees
  1. Objectives of the session

Given the large percentage of displaced persons around the world, and the institutionalized discrimination many face along with learning new languages, entering the job market if  possible, and many other challenges, this symposium brings together experts to promote dialog about effective instruction for refugee children. In this symposium, consisting of seven presentations, audience and presenters will explore innovative practices. Equally important, audience and presenters will expand the discussion to what research is needed and how best to put extant and new research into practice in schools and similar educational enterprises.

  1. Overview of the presentation

The seven presentations cover three overlapping themes. Each addresses two or more of the three themes including 1. The built environment (e.g., schools and libraries) and tools (e.g., digital technology), 2. Social support that displaced students and their families need to be successful given the traumas they have encountered and continue to experience, and 3. The means by which educators can foster well-being as students adapt to their new situation, whether temporary or permanent.

  1. Scholarly or scientific significance

We argue in these presentations and papers that the significance of research for educators lies primarily in how that research can enrich and improve practice in schools and other educational enterprises.  In the case of what is needed to teach displaced children and adults, research that addresses the diverse cultures and unique circumstances that refugee students face in higher education and PK-12. The symposium brings together what has, so far, been piecemeal approaches to a framework for teaching displaced students.  Given the trauma, the dehumanizing circumstances that led to seeking asylum, and the polarized political environments that exacerbate the extreme conditions faced by refugees, the discussion to promote effective practices through solid research is past due. In this way, we interrogate consequential education research in pursuit of truth and equity for some of the most vulnerable of students.

Social Support for Refugee Students

Ibrahim M. Karkouti

Purpose: The world’s attention has shifted to two new refugee waves that require immediate response to avoid creating new lost generations in Europe and Central Asia. Specifically, Ukrainian and Afghan students need significant support from teachers, administrators, policymakers, humanitarian aid professionals, and social workers to ease their refugee plight and prevent a dire scenario similar to that of their Syrian counterparts. Notwithstanding the importance of addressing the deleterious and traumatic effects of war and conflict on the wellbeing of Ukrainian and Afghan people, this session will unfold the story of Syrian refugee students in Lebanon, the biggest refugee-hosting country per capita in the world (UNRWA, 2020).

Theoretical Framework: Through the lenses of social support (House, 1981) and multicultural education (Ortiz & Rhoads, 2000), this session will examine the current status of Syrian refugee students in Lebanon.

Method & Sources: Secondary data (empirical research and reports of facts).

Findings & Significance: Specifically, it will discuss teachers’ lack of diversity awareness, describe what refugee students experience inside the classroom, and explain the types of support students need to overcome the barriers that obstruct their education.

Refugee Families and the Literacy Landscape: Schools, Libraries, and Changing Community Needs

Jill Hallett, Annmarie Handley, Sussan Oladipo, and Rachel Lackey

Purpose: In this presentation, educators discuss the disparate academic and literacy contexts for serving refugee and newcomer students within the same US city. They share the challenges faced by students, families, educators, administrators, and librarians in their respective contexts and how the pandemic has affected refugee students and families personally and academically. Together, they present strategies and recommendations for addressing educational and social-emotional well-being for refugee students across a variety of contexts in schools and libraries.

Framework: Teachers and students find themselves negotiating a staggering number of linguistic, literacy, and academic histories. As Cushing (2020) writes, “[l]anguage plays a critical role in reproducing imbalances in power and dominance, especially when powerful policy arbiters have the ability to regulate and control the language of others” (p. 432).  The schools and library discussed here are based in exceptionally linguistically and demographically diverse areas of Chicago with refugee community resources. Students’ languages and cultures are often absorbed as they assimilate into the dominant culture(s) of the school community.

Methods & Sources: Teacher, administrator, and librarian knowledge of refugee students as individuals can help prevent the disconnection that can form through the social distancing that predates the pandemic and persists. Here, we advocate for pragmatic, asset-based approaches to refugee literacies as newcomers navigate their new and changing communities. Qualitative ethnographic approaches were used throughout.

Findings: Language, culture, trauma, and the pandemic have all presented challenges of particular pertinence to refugee students and their teachers. Teachers find themselves working to bridge the communication gap while also helping all students make sense of content. Refugee families also require explicit instruction in the institutional culture of schools and libraries, from the significance of the school bell to the ramifications of absences and missing work, to accessing playgroups in various languages. Especially for students with interrupted formal schooling (SIFE), these values are not intuitive. Teachers and librarians question their own complicity in upholding these arbitrary, inaccurate, and often punitive institutional practices.

Teaching adolescents with trauma presents an additional challenge. Students arrive emotionally and physically fatigued from traumas associated with leaving their home country, adjusting to a new life, and experiencing homelessness, poverty, lack of food and other resources. For many, the pandemic was just the latest in a series of interruptions to their schooling. In-person cues from classmates and teachers are useless in a remote setting where students are expected to connect to the correct class at the correct time using unfamiliar technology, even when it is available.

Significance: Despite the challenges facing refugee students and families, this presentation offers myriad constructive solutions, particularly as they relate to literacy and social development. Recommendations include investigating student and family language and asset-based literacy histories, establishing school-university partnerships, providing access to technology and support, offering trusted adult counsel and peer mentorship opportunities, hosting family literacy activities, and presenting literacy materials and services that reflect the changing language needs of the community.

Finding Spaces of Belonging on Campus: A Case Study of Refugee Students in America

Mohamed ElHess

Context:There is no doubt that with the sociopolitical climate of immigration discourse in the U.S. immigration (building a wall, deportation, visa rejections, Muslim Travel ban) interweaving with the partisan political discourse of immigration sentiments (e.g., taking jobs, rejecting immersion in the culture), refugee students struggle to effectively integrate on campus. Therefore, understanding how these students experience a sense of belonging in their respective higher educational institutions is imperative in creating equitable and socially-just learning spaces in higher education.

Purpose: The purpose of this study was to explore a sample of refugee college students from North Africa and Middle East and the ways in which they experienced a sense of belonging in their respective institutions as well as the affordances and barriers they experienced as refugee students.

Theoretical Framework: The theoretical framework Third Space (Bhabha, 1994) strengthened the orientation of SB in this research. According to Elliot et al, (2016), ‘Third Space’ is the space for allowing “important breathing room” to establish social connections, offsetting loneliness, fostering personal learning, enjoyment, and development. (p.556). As refugee students may experience exclusion, marginalization, subordination, they strive to find a space in which they feel a sense of belonging through opportunities for safety, respect, and motivation to explore and make meaning of their experiences, and to have agency.

Design: In thisqualitative case study, data was collected across interviews throughout three academic years. A grounded theory approach was used to analyze the data. The data analysis started with open coding for each case study followed by a “cross-case analysis” (Hill, 2012).

Findings: The results showed that although the participants yearned to fit in and belong, the intersectional challenges of being a non-native speaker and resourceless shaped these students’ experiences of being left out, unvalued, and lost as outsiders. Results also showed that some participants were able to construct ‘spaces of belonging. Examples of these spaces were the international center and developing relationships with one another and safe faculty. These spaces serve as a prominent militating mechanism of eliminating the participants of feeling as different and thereby extending opportunities to build safe spaces.

Significance: This proposal addresses how belonging supports and negates specific races, cultures, and languages of marginalized individuals such as refugees in finding safe spaces. Thus, understanding contexts where we support and a sense of belonging of refugee students are vital in the 21st century and align with this year’s AERA theme, searching for the truth, by challenging the assumptions made about refugee students and the truths about refugee students experiences held by many in higher education, and those they should be able to trust and rely on for understanding and empathy.  456 words

Finding a Pathway to Unlocking Refugees’ Learning Potential: Current Challenges and Lifelong Technology-Enhanced Learning Solutions

Daria Mizza

Purpose &Framework: This presentation aims at proposing a guiding framework based on Fraser’s (2009, 2019) participatory conditions, for teachers of refugees to create alternative forms of success and establish foundations for lifelong learning.

Techniques: With this aim in mind, during the presentation we will examine UNHCR documents to acknowledge the purpose of lifelong education for refugees as a contemporary priority to unlocking refugee students’ potential and we will identify several key factors leading to its reconceptualization.

This is mainly accomplished by redistributing technology-enhanced resources to create activities that allow refugee students to develop skills for meaningful choice-making at transition points during and after their time in school.

Conclusions & Significance: The presentation concludes by emphasizing how student refugee lifelong learning opportunities are contingent upon the national education system detecting and accommodating the student’s preexisting skills and knowledge from the beginning. Such an improved learning experience can unlock refugee learners’ potential to establish themselves in a new society and serve as global citizens.

Promoting the Well-being of Asylum-Seeking and Refugee Children Within and Beyond the School Gates: Insights from the United Kingdom

Mehmet Karakus and Anas Hajar

Objectives: This presentation provides a narrative synthesis of the research findings on the well-being of asylum-seeking and refugeechildren in the United Kingdom. The relevant research studies on the well-being of asylum-seeking and refugee children in the UK context were retrieved, and their findings were thematically analyzed.

Framework: Racial and ethnic inequalities in child education and wellbeing have been described across population groups and contexts, particularly in developed nations such as the UK, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (Müller et al., 2020; Robertson, 2022). This presentation provides a systematic review of resources that tackled the issue of the well-being of refugee and asylum-seeking children within and beyond the school gates in the UK.

Methods & Sources: The thematic analysis was based on the overarching research questions as the main themes: identifying adversities that negatively impact the well-being of migrant/refugee students, the support mechanisms/interventions used to sustain/improve the well-being of migrant/refugee students, and the challenges to supporting the well-being of migrant/refugee students at school.

The authors identified 36 research articles published in peer-review journals and thematically analyzed them to document these children’s negative experiences that could impact their well-being. The reported studies also explained the support mechanisms and interventions needed to sustain and improve child welfare and the challenges encountered in supporting their well-being.

Findings: The research findings suggest that asylum-seeking and refugee children have diverse socioemotional and behavioral challenges, needs, expectations, psychological resources, and coping mechanisms that require schools to develop socioemotionally, culturally, or/and religiously sensitive responses for a more inclusive school environment. Teachers and other school staff need more training opportunities and educational resources, and schools need more financial, staff, and infrastructure support to provide the required academic and socio-emotional support.

Significance: This study gives insights to policymakers and practitioners to develop more inclusive policies and practices to improve and sustain the well-being of refugee/migrant students. 

Teaching Refugee Children in Troubling Times

Leila Kajee

Context: Refugees, unlike immigrants who voluntarily move, confront a range of challenges that are unique to their situations. These include the need to teach children who have experienced the sustained trauma of being forced from their homes, possible loss of family members, loss of other forms of social support in the home country, health problems, and cultural and language challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the need for teachers, educational leaders, and policymakers who are prepared to serve refugees and the children of refugees. While for many students, school can be a safe place, for refugee students, it can either be a source of certainty or a source of more pain. Nearly 50 million children worldwide are refugees, and almost half of them do not attend school.

Purpose: Given this context, teachers face uphill challenges in coping with the diversity introduced by the introduction of refugee children. In this presentation I provide some of the key challenges encountered by teachers in the country, and submit for consideration a framework of key questions we could ask ourselves, as teachers, in our teaching.

Framework: In this presentation I propose a humanizing pedagogy, love as a critical act of resistance, hope and resilience to address challenges conceptually, and consider what this might imply for teaching refugee children.

Conclusions and significance: To address refugee needs in the classroom through a humanizing lens, and as an act of love, it becomes necessary to identify dilemmas and self-examine our feelings of fear, anger, guilt, or bias. As teachers we need to explore new roles and relationships with students, and to try on these new roles. To do so, we need to formulate a course of action and acquire the knowledge and skills to implement our new plans (Mezirow, 2003).

When Trauma as a Refugee Transcends Generations: How Teachers Might Be  Allies to Help Successive Generations Build Success

Thomas DeVere Wolsey

Purpose: This presentation explores how trauma, such as forced displacement, is manifested in the children and grandchildren of refugees. After a brief discussion of what generational trauma is, the presentation focuses on what teachers and school leaders can do when they are working with students whose families have been displaced.

Framework: According to Yosso (2015), there are at least six types of capital the refugee families might maintain while simultaneously remaining off the scope of schooling systems founded on preserving the prevailing and often majority culture. Kwan (2019) is also consulted. A framework for helping teachers discover their positionality in relation to displaced students is identified.

Mode of Inquiry & Sources: A review of the literature that demonstrates how teachers and teacher educators can recognize funds of knowledge (Moll, date). Narratives of the lives of second-generation and subsequent offspring also add depth teachers might draw on to support students beyond the everyday tasks of schooling.

Findings & Significance: Traumas passed on from one generation to the next do not necessarily fix or set the outcomes from one generation to another.  In this paper, we examine both the undesired outcomes and the possible achievements that might be built on what might have been tragic. ·       Transgenerational trauma often manifests itself in maladaptive behaviors. Understanding the nature of transgenerational trauma can change the way educators work with students who may be experiencing this type of trauma.       A key for teachers working with children who have experienced trauma is empathy. However, empathizing is difficult work, and it requires that teachers take care of themselves.  This chapter suggests that helping students find their sense of purpose can foster resilience.  Educators with a purpose can help students to find their purpose, sometimes lost for a time due to trauma, in society, family, and in themselves, thus building resilience.


Bhabha, H. (1994). The location of culture. Routledge.

Cushing, I. (2020). The policy and policing of language in schools. Language in Society 49, 425–450.

Elliot, D. L., Baumfield, V., & Reid, K. (2016). Searching for ‘a third space’: a creative pathway towards international PhD students’ academic acculturation. Higher Education Research & Development, 35(6), 1180-1195.

Fraser, N. (2009). Scales of justice. Columbia University Press.

Fraser, N. (2019). The old is dying and the new cannot be born. Verso.

House, J. S. (1981). Work stress and social support. Addison-Wesley.

Hill, C. E. (2012). Consensual qualitative research: A practical resource for investigating social science phenomena. American Psychological Association.

Katsos, N. (2020). Bilingualism in the family and child well-being: A scoping review. International Journal of Bilingualism, 24(5-6), 1049-1070. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1367006920920939

Kwan, Y. Y. (2019). Providing asset‐based support for Asian American refugees: Interrogating transgenerational trauma, resistance, and affective capital. New Directions for Higher Education, 2019(186), 37–47.  https://doi.org/10.1002/he.20322

Ortiz, A. M., & Rhoads, R. A. (2000). Deconstructing Whiteness as part of a multicultural education framework: From theory to practice. Journal of College Student Development, 41(1), 81-93.

Robertson, A. S. (2022). Scottish children’s panels: Where volunteers are essential for fostering child well-being. Journal of Public Child Welfare, 16(1), 7-27. https://doi.org/10.1080/15548732.2020.1792389

UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) (2012). Education strategy 2012–2016. Geneva: UNHCR. Retrieved 1 December 2021 from http://www.unhcr.org/protection/operations/5149ba349/unhcr-education-strategy-2012-2016.html.

UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) (2016a). Global report 2016. Geneva: UNHCR. Retrieved January 4 2022 from https://reporting.unhcr.org/sites/default/files/gr2016/pdf/Book_GR_2016_ENGLISH_complete.pdf.

UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) (2016b). Missing out: Refugee education in crisis. Geneva: UNHCR. Retrieved March 2 2022 from https://inee.org/system/files/ resources/UNHCR_2016.pdf.

UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) (2019). Refugee education 2030: A strategy for refugee inclusion. Geneva: UNHCR. Retrieved 1 December 2021 from https://www.unhcr.org/5d651da88d7.pdf.

UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) (2020). Protracted refugee situation explained. Washington, DC: UNHCR. Retrieved 4 March 2022 from https://www.unrefugees.org/news/protracted-refugee-situations-explained/#What%20is%20a%20protracted%20refugee%20situation?

Müller, L. M., Howard, K., Wilson, E., Gibson, J., & UNRWA. (2020). Protection brief Palestine refugees living in Lebanon. Retrieved from https://www.unrwa.org/sites/default/files/20-09-28_lfo_context_protection_brief_2020_final83.pdf

Yosso, T. J.  (2005) Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69-91. https://doi.org/10.1080/1361332052000341006  

%d bloggers like this: