Refugee Youth Voices: Educator Strategies for Understanding Language & Past Experiences

By: Mandy Flores-Curley

This is the fourth post in a the Refugee Youth Voices series that is uplifting the voices of young people with refugee- and immigrant-backgrounds.

Highlights:

  • This post is part of the Refugee Youth Voices blog series, a partnership with the Refugees Pursuing Education And Community Excellence (R_PEACE) coalition, where young people with immigrant backgrounds are sharing their experiences.
  • As a former teacher and current graduate student, I am adding to this series by sharing some tips that educators can use to understand the past experiences of their students and language differences.
  • In this blog, I share strategies for nurturing learning for students with refugee backgrounds, and addressing trauma with sensitivity and support.
Source: Canva

The diversity of the student population in schools today includes children who are refugees, many of whom have experienced trauma that can affect their learning and behavior in profound ways. As educators, it is crucial to develop an understanding for these experiences, adjusting our teaching practices to create a supportive environment.

Here, I want to focus on strategies for helping students who have been traumatized, and like Sue Mar, disturbed by fireworks on the Fourth of July due to their association with past experiences. Here are some approaches tailored for elementary, middle, and high school settings to facilitate a nurturing and effective learning environment for all students.

Elementary School Strategies

  • Safe Spaces: Establish a “safe space” in your classroom where students can retreat if they feel overwhelmed. This area should be equipped with calming activities and materials (e.g., books, art supplies). It’s a quiet corner where students can take a moment to regulate their emotions.
  • Routine & Predictability: Many refugee children find comfort in predictability. Maintain a consistent daily routine and give plenty of opportunities to learn about transitions and any upcoming events that might be out of the ordinary, including celebrations like the Fourth of July.
  • Storytelling & Books: Use stories and books that are sensitive to the experiences of refugees without being triggered. Literature that focuses on themes of hope, resilience, and diverse experiences can be particularly powerful. This approach builds empathy among all students and helps those with trauma feel seen and understood.

Middle School Strategies

  • Peer Support: Foster a buddy system pairing refugee students with empathetic peers who can help them navigate school life. This system promotes a sense of belonging and support. Training for these peer buddies on basic understanding of trauma can enhance the effectiveness of this strategy. Note: Be particularly careful that the student is helpful and trustworthy.
  • Expressive Arts: Encourage participation in art, music, and drama, which can be therapeutic and offer a form of expression beyond words. For instance, participating in a music class can be a soothing alternative for a student troubled by the noise of fireworks, offering a positive association with sound.
  • Inclusive Celebrations: Be mindful of cultural sensitivities when planning school events and celebrations. Offer alternative activities during events that include fireworks or other potentially triggering experiences. Educate the entire school community about the reasons for these adjustments to foster a culture of understanding and respect.

High School Strategies

  • Student-led Initiatives: Empower students to take the lead in creating inclusive projects or clubs that address the needs of refugee students. For example, a student group could organize a quiet, welcoming event as an alternative to the traditional Fourth of July celebrations. Note: This has to be done carefully, without giving too much information that the student may not want to share.
  • Counseling & Support Services: Ensure that refugee students have access to counseling services that are sensitive to their experiences. School counselors should be trained in trauma-informed approaches to effectively support these students.
  • Educational Adaptations: Recognize and accommodate the diverse educational backgrounds of refugee students. This might include differentiated instruction, targeted English language support, and flexibility in assignments and testing to account for varied levels of formal education prior to arrival.

Teaching students who are refugees and have experienced trauma requires a thoughtful and informed approach. By implementing strategies tailored to the unique needs of all students at different educational levels, educators can create an environment that not only supports their academic growth but also their emotional healing and well-being. I believe we should strive to empower these students, helping them feel safe, included, and capable of achieving their full potential in their new community.


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Mandy Flores-Curley, an educator with 14 years of teaching experience, is now a Ph.D. student at the University of Virginia. Her research encompasses English as a Second Language (ESL) and Dual Language Education, student performance, teacher development, and leveraging artificial intelligence to enhance teaching methods. She has a strong commitment to advancing education and she is on a mission to shape the future of learning and teaching.

Refugee Youth Voices: Understanding Language & Past Experiences

By: Sue Mar

This is the third post in a the Refugee Youth Voices series that is uplifting the voices of young people with refugee- and immigrant-backgrounds.

Highlights:

  • This post is part of the Refugee Youth Voices blog series in partnership with the Refugees Pursuing Education And Community Excellence (R_PEACE) coalition.
  • Students from R_PEACE are sharing their experiences from having a refugee background and now being in the United States.
  • Sue Mar talks about elements of her language and culture growing up, and how she started to understand past experiences once moving to the USA.
Source: Jennifer Mann

My name is Sue Mar and I grew up in Burma, a country in Southeast Asia. I arrived in the United States when I was 14 years old. I want to share more about my original language and culture growing up.

Language & Culture

Karenni has been a spoken language for generations in my homeland, although it has only been officially written for 40 years. The Karenni people’s cultural and historical traditions were solely passed down from father to son, therefore, they missed out on a lot of history since it was never written.

My grandparents, for example, spoke Karenni but never wrote it down. It was only passed down to my mom as a spoken tongue. My mother only taught me how to communicate in languages, and I never learned how to write them when I was younger.

To me, this creates a language gap because people cannot:

  • Learn about their own culture,
  • Document their history, and
  • Learn from their mistakes so that they do not repeat them.

Even certificates of birth or death are uncommon, unless you are raised in certain religions.

Understanding Past Experiences

Because Karenni is a language that has not been written for very long, it is hard to document our long history, or prove that other people did not see or go through certain paths. But the struggles and trauma are real. I have seen with my own eyes some of the suffering the Karenni people faced at the hands of the Burmese military.

When my family and I arrived in refugee camps, we all went through different struggles because of our ages. I had never heard of the term “traumatize” until I attended a community college event, but I now understand what that means. I understand why I react in certain situations in the manner I do and it is because I have been traumatized.

For example, during the Fourth of July, many Americans will be celebrating with their families. For me, the sounds of fireworks trigger memories of conflict from my homeland. It reminds me and my family of gunshots. I wanted to run and hide the first year we arrived in the United States because we did not know about the July 4th traditions or understand how they would affect our past experiences.

More and better education may be important in these cases, and I will share more about my experiences in 3 countries’ educational systems in my next post!


Stay tuned to this Refugee Youth Voices blog series to read more from Sue Mar on her experiences in educational systems from country to country!

Please note that pseudonyms are being used to protect the student writers and their family’s safety as part of this Refugee Youth Voices blog series.


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Sue Mar is part of a group of college students from refugee-backgrounds that formed a coalition called R_PEACE (Refugees Pursuing Education And Community Excellence). R_PEACE creates content by using a critical literacy perspective, telling their counter-stories regarding access and entry into college, and disseminating information. The goal is to increase access to college for other refugees via three avenues: live speaking events in non-profit organizations serving refugees, a multilingual brochure, and through social media.

Refugee Youth Voices: Journey from Afghanistan to Kyrgyzstan

By: Geeti, recent college graduate with Political Science/Cons. Pre-law & Criminology degree

This is the second post in a the Refugee Youth Voices series that is uplifting the voices of young people with refugee- and immigrant-backgrounds.

Highlights:

  • This post is part of the Refugee Youth Voices blog series in partnership with the Refugees Pursuing Education And Community Excellence (R_PEACE) coalition.
  • Students from R_PEACE are sharing their experiences from having a refugee background and now being in the United States.
  • Geeti talks about her life in Afghanistan before her family had to relocate to Kyrgyzstan.
Source: Jennifer Mann

My name is Geeti, and I’m originally from Afghanistan. My family and I left our home country in 2007 when I was 8 years old. We temporarily relocated to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan before moving to the USA in 2014. The motivation behind sharing my experience is to shed light on the fact that people like me do not come to the USA solely for a better life; it is primarily for our safety, as our lives were in great danger. I hope to reach a diverse audience because I want to be a voice for others facing similar challenges.

My Homeland of Afghanistan

Now, let me transport you to life in Afghanistan.

Life in Afghanistan was beautiful. I have beautiful memories of our family gatherings and the warmth of our culture.

Let me share a specific example: my grandparents’ houses. They had two houses, one in the city and the other in a village. Because my grandfather was a farmer, both houses had spacious yards and extensive gardens. They cultivated a variety of flowers, vegetables, and fruits. Life with our families and cousins together in our home country was truly beautiful. When we visited our grandparents’ houses, which was very often, we had the most wonderful and unforgettable times of our lives. Now that I think about it, it was like being in paradise—the most beautiful houses with enchanting gardens that filled the air with fragrant aromas, and kids playing around while the adults had heartwarming conversations together.

However, life also presented us with overwhelming challenges. As the situation in Afghanistan continued to deteriorate, my parents made the difficult decision to flee the country in order to safeguard our family from the escalating danger. I remember as a child when my father would instruct my sister and me to walk separately, one of us ahead of the other, so that if one was kidnapped, the other could escape. Those words are engraved in my memory forever.

Journey of Survival in Kyrgyzstan

Leaving behind everything we had in our homeland, we began on a journey of survival in Kyrgyzstan. We had to adapt to a new language, learn a different culture, and integrate into a society that was not our own. Challenges, like extremely cold winter nights and not having enough food, tested how tough we were.

Slowly but surely, we overcame these obstacles. We became proficient in Russian and Kyrgyz, excelled in school, and achieved numerous awards. During this time, my father’s business in Kyrgyzstan also began to flourish.

However, despite our achievements, we faced limitations in Kyrgyzstan because we were not native Kyrgyz or Russian. This eventually led us to make the decision to move to the United States when our case was accepted by the USCIS.

What I Learned

Our time in Kyrgyzstan significantly shaped my worldview. It showed me how important it is:

  • To be able to adjust to changes,
  • Keep going even when things are tough, and
  • To never give up, no matter the challenges we face.

My parents taught us that no matter where life takes you, with determination and hard work, you can overcome the most overwhelming challenges.


Stay tuned to this Refugee Youth Voices blog series to read more from Geeti on her experience in moving to the USA and how she is thriving!

Please note that pseudonyms are being used to protect the student writers and their family’s safety as part of this Refugee Youth Voices blog series.


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Geeti is part of a group of college students from refugee-backgrounds that formed a coalition called R_PEACE (Refugees Pursuing Education And Community Excellence). R_PEACE creates content by using a critical literacy perspective, telling their counter-stories regarding access and entry into college, and disseminating information. The goal is to increase access to college for other refugees via three avenues: live speaking events in non-profit organizations serving refugees, a multilingual brochure, and through social media.

Refugee Youth Voices: Introducing the R_PEACE Coalition

By: Jennifer C. Mann

This is the first post in a the Refugee Youth Voices series that is uplifting the voices of young people with refugee- and immigrant-backgrounds.

Highlights:

  • This post is introducing the Refugee Youth Voices blog series with the Refugees Pursuing Education And Community Excellence (R_PEACE) coalition.
  • I present information about the students from refugee backgrounds and the inequitable systems they face.
  • I introduce the work and impact of R_PEACE and set the stage for upcoming student-written blogs in this series. Additionally, I provide resources for learning more. 
Source: Jennifer Mann

I spent sixteen years as an educator, mostly to refugee- and immigrant-background students who recently arrived in the United States. I am currently a Research Scientist at Duke University, where I work on making education more accessible and more welcoming for such students.

Refugee Backgrounds & Inequitable Systems

Refugees relocate to escape violence, poverty, and extreme conditions. They also arrive in new countries hoping for educational opportunities. However, despite their interest in educational achievement, there are many reasons refugees face educational barriers.

First, the process of migration for refugees often involves emotional trauma and may result in post-traumatic stress disorder.1 Additionally, there are often gaps in children’s formal education before and during the resettlement process.2 Students with limited or interrupted formal education have had at least two fewer years of schooling than their peers and have varying levels of formal education.3

Furthermore, refugee-background students often face mixed reception by community and school personnel.4 Overall, there is evidence of a continued deficit perspective held by teachers and administrators towards refugee and immigrant students and a subsequent lack of access to rigorous learning opportunities.5

In response to the lack of rigorous learning, I wanted to provide refugee-background youth with opportunities for complex learning and critical engagement. One important research project I led was a social design-based experiment, which was conducted in an effort to bring about social transformation through a reconceptualization and reorganization of standard educational practices. Central to social design-based research is inviting participants to partner in taking action to help transform the inequitable systems which adversely impact their lives. In this social design-based study, I worked with a group of young adults from refugee backgrounds who wanted to increase college access for other refugee-background students.

They formed a coalition called R_PEACE (Refugees Pursuing Education And Community Excellence). Through R_PEACE they traveled around to nonprofits who work with refugee- and immigrant-background students and shared some of their educational experiences and insights and offered their support. Additionally, R_PEACE spoke to over a hundred educators about how they can better support their students who are new to the country or new to the language.

The Coalition’s Work & Impact

The R_PEACE students have incredible insight into the unique complexities of being refugees. Driven by a motivation to help, they are able to:

  • Clearly communicate their own experiences.
  • Challenge others to consider how they can help craft better educational experiences for other refugee-background students.
  • Create better experiences and better futures for others.
  • Openly share their own difficult experiences.

It is my hope that we can all be open to hearing and learning from them. In the upcoming series blogs, Sue Mar, Gigi, and other students share profound insights that are relevant to us all as we seek to make the world a better place.

As educators, we can improve the world by making strides towards cultivating spaces of belonging. As researchers, we can seek out humanizing and participatory research approaches which allow the participants to partner with us in seeking solutions to the problems they face. As both an educator and a researcher, one of the most important actions I can take is listening to learn. It is my hope that we will each pause in our busy lives and listen to learn from the wisdom of others.

Resources for Learning More

In addition to listening to learn, we can read to learn. I’ve included some resources for those wanting to know more. Learn more about teaching refugees from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the world’s leading refugee organization. Visit Harvard’s page on research, education, and action for refugees around the world for academic and creative resources. Finally, read an article I wrote about the importance of caring relationships and relevant and relatable curriculum.

Citations

1Tuliao et al., 2017; 2Daniel & Zybina, 2019; 3Hos, 2016; 4Roxas & Roy, 2012, p. 469; 5Alford, 2014; Daniel & Zybina, 2019; Lau, 2012


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Jennifer C. Mann is a Research Scientist at Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Policy. In 2023, she received her Ph.D. in Teacher Education and Learning Sciences from North Carolina State University. Dr. Mann spent sixteen years as an educator, teaching high school English, elementary and adult English as a Second Language (ESL), and undergraduate pre-service English and ESL education. Her research interests include refugee and immigrant education, culturally sustaining critical pedagogies, and the social-emotional well-being of marginalized students.