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September 1, 2013
Vol. 71
No. 1

Building the Resilience of Refugees

Older students with little formal schooling present singular challenges. Here's what one Canadian district learned.

Anan was a 15-year-old from South Sudan who'd been in Canada for two years. His father had been killed in South Sudan's civil war, and his family had fled from village to village to escape further violence. Anan had received no schooling before coming west, except for some weekend classes offered by missionaries that he attended while living temporarily in Egypt. He had perhaps a 2nd grade level of proficiency in most subjects and knew no English beyond basic phrases.
Anan had already been suspended from two high schools for incidents involving violence; they didn't want him back. Anan's home situation held tensions also. When he drew a picture of his family, he left out his two older brothers because they'd been in and out of jail.
The Calgary Catholic School District needed a safe place for Anan to finish the school year, so he came to us at the district's Bridge Program. Anan didn't want to be there. He complained that he couldn't wait to get back to his regular high school. Imagine my surprise, then, when at the end of three months, Anan told me he wanted to come back to Bridge in September. It was the beginning of a relationship that speaks to the resilience of this young man and others like him in programs like Bridge.
The influx of refugee students from countries such as South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Colombia presents an enormous challenge for Canadian secondary school systems. Young-adult refugee students with limited formal schooling (LFS) arrive from countries disrupted by conflict; they are often unfamiliar with any school environment and are illiterate in their first language; and manycarry memories of loss and emotional trauma.
Nonetheless, despite the overwhelming obstacles confronting them, some succeed at getting a formal education. Beyond admiring the success stories, what can school systems do to nurture adolescent refugees' resilience and help them succeed?
The Bridge Program is one Canadian district's way of answering that question. I've been involved in Bridge since its birth, as the program teacher for its first six years, and I've realized that when educating refugees, school systems can no longer afford to hope that students will somehow learn through osmosis (Matthews, 2008). Programs for older refugee students should focus on keeping them in sheltered school environments. I hope insights from what we've learned creating such an environment at Bridge will be helpful to any district struggling to help older learners.

The Bridge Program—and What Works

In response to an influx of low-literacy, refugee students of high school age, Calgary Catholic School District started Bridge in 2005. Teachers in mainstream classrooms couldn't provide the elevated levels of instruction and direction these students needed (Matthews, 2008), nor could they cope with age-old intertribal grievances that erupted into conflict in their classrooms (Feuerverger, 2011; Matthews, 2008).
Bridge's goal is to provide students like Anan an environment that builds literacy and life skills—and nurtures resilience (Matthews, 2008). To attend Bridge, Students need to be older than 17 (we made an exception for Anan), have refugee status, and have had interrupted formal schooling—or no schooling. We generally serve around 15 students. Our four overarching strategies are (1) focus intensely on literacy and life skills; (2) be flexible with curriculum; (3) make school a safe haven with caring relationships; and (4) support transition into postsecondary programs.

Focus on Literacy and Life Skills

Academic success for students like Anan is contingent on a strong literacy foundation. Refugee students, however, are often illiterate or semiliterate in their first language; they have the daunting task of learning content and a new language at the same time.
These students have missed out on important cognitive development that takes place in a normal K–12 education (Brown, Miller, & Mitchell, 2006). It takes most English language learners three to five years to gain oral proficiency in English and four to seven years to acquire academic proficiency. The challenge is compounded for students with little schooling. Research suggests that "students with low literacy, interrupted schooling, and traumatic experiences can be expected to take 10 years or more to catch up to average levels of cognitive and academic language" (Kanu, 2008, p. 917).
This need to spend intense time with the basics is a source of frustration for these students, who want a normal high school experience. To keep young adults engaged, Bridge teachers embed English language instruction in content and try to present it in ways that connect to life knowledge and skills. Although they're often at different levels, all students are taught in one group (in English) so those with more English and more content familiarity can aid those with less. For example, in presenting a science unit on the water cycle, we embed a lot of English vocabulary and conversation about the seasons and the weather.
A teacher, a classroom aide, and our multicultural liaison (who speaks the language of several of our students) coordinate all instruction and provide a lot of individual or small-group help. We use interpreters provided by the district if students speak languages that none of our educators speak.

Flexibility—and Sensitivity

Programs designed to meet the needs of refugee students must be flexible in adjusting curriculum and content. Our learners arrive with a wide range of needs; some cannot even write the English alphabet. Teachers must be sensitive to presenting primary-level content in a way that doesn't demean young adults.
For example, one attempt to engage Bridge students through hands-on learning was an utter failure. The instructor planned to have the class create Claymation figures as part of a project. The project had sound learning strategies and objectives, but students were highly offended by what they saw as child's play. No amount of explanation could convince them of the legitimacy of this form of learning. Flexible programming allowed instructors to regroup and come at the learning from another angle.
On another occasion, a student asked if we lived in the earth or on it. The question excited debate and led to insights about students' lack of basic science knowledge. Again, flexibility allowed the teacher to respond by developing an appropriate unit of study to explore this unexpected question.
This flexibility enables teachers to provide students an engaging array of events that boost social and life skills—hands-on learning, field trips, and immersion in Canadian cultural events. We instruct students in how to make and answer phone calls, set appointments with the doctor, and fill out job applications.
To help students follow the news, we use events like the tsunami in Japan as teachable moments. Teaching students about ice hockey helps them engage in conversation with Canadian people. We embed reading and writing practice into these activities. For example, we use the Winter Olympics to learn about winter sports, other countries, and vocabulary associated with competition. Using the Internet, our class followed a local athlete as she pursued a gold medal in the recent Olympics and then wrote a congratulatory e-mail to her.
Assessment can be a delicate issue. Some Bridge students are familiar with the concept of credit requirements for achieving an Alberta high school diploma, but with their late start, the age limitations on high school eligibility, and their lack of academic English, these students often cannot achieve enough credits to obtain a diploma. Teachers help students understand that amassing high school credits is not a top priority because they'll soon transition to community college. There, they will enter a literacy program that's partnered with Bridge and designed to support our students in gaining high school–level academic English and upgrading the classes they can take at the college. The eventual goal is a GED.
Students persist in unrealistic expectations about how long it will take them to get an education. There's an unsettling disconnect between their aspirations and their educational levels. Students see themselves becoming engineers and registered nurses and have difficulty understanding that it will take many years just to achieve high school equivalency. Acceptance of the years of work ahead of them demands enormous resilience. While encouraging them in their goals, the program helps them be realistic; perhaps a young man can't become a registered nurse right away, but he can become a health care aide.

School as Safe Haven

Many refugee students have suffered loss, forced migration, violence, and sometimes years in the volatile conditions of large refugee camps. Such experiences can lead to depression, withdrawal, aggression, inability to concentrate, anxiety, problems with academic performance—and to dropping out of school (Brown et al., 2006; Feuerverger, 2011).
Students who have undergone extended periods of disrupted schooling can experience great difficulty adapting to the routines and expectations of schools. They may be unaccustomed to sitting in a classroom, listening to a teacher, or even holding a pencil correctly (Brown et al., 2006; Feuerverger, 2011).
Not only are these young adults adapting to a new country, culture, and language, but they're also trying to establish their identities and feel a sense of belonging. Because they desperately want to belong, they become easy targets for recruitment to the subculture of violence and gangs (Matthews, 2008). Home situations may be tenuous; these students often live with only one parent who is struggling to adapt to the culture—and put food on the table (Kanu, 2008).
Programs for refugee students must create a caring and stable environment in the midst of the instability of students' lives (Feuerverger, 2011). It's up to the staff at programs like Bridge to nurture students. Building relationships with compassionate adults and making new friends instill the sense of self-worth, security, and belonging these students crave.
Our teachers, administrators, aides, and cultural liaison work to help students deal with their trials effectively. Our cultural liaison (a former refugee, now a social worker) makes a point of establishing a trusting relationship with each student, scheduling time to go on a walk or meet in our student lounge with each one. Advisors from Bow Valley Community College, with whom we partner, also team up with each student to advise the young refugees on future goals.
For instance, although he spoke openly of wanting to avoid his brothers' experiences with jail, Anan twice spent time in the Young Offender Center. Each time he got out, he approached us about coming back to Bridge. We accepted him back and supported him so he'd make better choices.
Anan needed a part-time job to help his mother pay rent. Bridge's cultural liaison and vice principal pitched in to help him develop a résumé (spotty as it was); fill out applications; and prepare for interviews. Highly motivated, Anan walked the streets for hours after school, going into restaurants to ask about work, but no one seemed interested in hiring him.
We kept encouraging Anan to persist, and he drew on his resilience and kept a positive attitude. Our vice principal called in contacts in the restaurant world and even drove him to interviews. When Anan obtained a job as a busboy at a downtown restaurant, it was an exciting moment for all of us.

Transition Support

Because Bridge youth clearly won't be able to finish high school in the two or three years of high school eligibility available to them, the Calgary district partners with Bow Valley College to build a pathway to community college.
Instructors from Bow Valley conduct college-readiness classes, preparing our students for the expectations and independence that will be required of them as college learners. In turn, our class visits the college to participate in classes and special events. The college provides student advisors, who guide our students in identifying long-term goals, short-term objectives, and pathways for achieving both. Instructors draw on students' natural resilience by opening discussions about their fears and frustrations and help students recognize their past successes in dealing with threatening events.

What We Owe Them

High school refugee students with little previous schooling bring singular, often overwhelming needs to our school systems. Their desire to be like mainstream students often conflicts with their need to establish a solid foundation in literacy and to take an alternative route to academic achievement (Brown et al., 2006). Educators sometimes need to convince the students themselves of the wisdom of a sheltered path. But if we don't do our best to keep these youth in school, we risk letting them become the new underclass—partially skilled, partially literate, and with a lifetime in dead-end jobs (Matthews, 2008).
That didn't happen with Anan. His resilience was buoyed by our belief in him over the years. When we got word that he'd received a leadership award in his community college, we knew our continued efforts, flexibility, and compassion had found root in fertile ground.

Brown, J., Miller, J., & Mitchell, J. (2006). Interrupted schooling and the acquisition of literacy: Experiences of Sudanese refugees in Victorian secondary schools. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 29(2), 150–162.

Feuerverger, G. (2011). Re-bordering spaces of trauma: Auto-ethnographic reflections on the immigrant and refugee experience in an inner-city high school in Toronto. International Review of Education, 57(3–4), 357–375. doi:10.1007/s11159-011-9207-y

Kanu, Y. (2008). Educational needs and barriers for African refugee students in Manitoba. Canadian Journal of Education, 31(4), 915–940.

Matthews, J. (2008). Schooling and settlement: Refugee education in Australia. International Studies in Sociology of Education, 18(1), 31–45. doi:10.1080/09620210802195947

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