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A Culture of Care and Compassion for Refugee Students

Creating a state of nhân đạo

Recognizing the challenges that many refugees have incurred and the difficulties associated with forced resettlement, this article focuses on what Canadian schools and educators can do to support the needs of refugee students. Emerging from the findings of a three-year research program looking at best practices for supporting refugee students, was one inner-city school principal and his staff, who strive to create a safe environment that fosters intercultural connections, belonging, and a commitment to care and compassion.

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We have to be connected together as human beings. We have to spend time working side-by-side with each other, talking to each other, having connections that link the head to the heart… once you have that, then you can reveal a good space to receive the learning. – Tam Dui

We are living in a time of unprecedented mass displacement due to conflict, persecution, and natural disasters. As the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reports on its website, there are 65.3 million displaced people worldwide – the highest number since World War II – and 21.3 million of them are refugees who are fleeing conflict, violence or persecution. Most alarming, however, is that more than half of the world’s refugees are children.

The experiences of refugees are diverse and complex and the situations they have left may be riddled with violence, fear, loss, and extremely stressful living conditions. The desperate search for safety can have perilous consequences, as families risk everything to flee danger. Children are frequently separated from their families, denied access to education and health care and targeted with violence and human rights violations. Literature documenting the refugee experience records loss, trauma, violence and an overwhelming sense of uncertainty. Studies relating to refugees and mental health indicate a prevalence rate of 30 percent for post-traumatic stress disorder. While not all refugees have a traumatic past, it is generally assumed that there is a degree of adversity simply as a result of forced displacement. Relocation into a host country such as Canada represents hope for a better future, but the challenges and obstacles persist and the trajectory for some refugee children and their families is punctuated with feelings of hopelessness and uncertainty about the future. Barriers such as discrimination, limited employment opportunities, poverty, lack of appropriate housing and low educational achievement are just a few of the issues complicating adjustment.

Adjusting to schools in Canada
From 2005-2014, Canada settled a total of 233,861 refugees,[1] making it one of the top countries of resettlement. The demographics of Canadian classrooms are changing and becoming increasingly more diverse, but diversity itself is not a guarantee that different cultural groups are included in a system. While some schools and school districts in Canada have implemented exemplary programs to encourage social inclusion and intercultural understanding, there are others that offer little in the way of practical or pedagogical accommodations for some of Canada’s most recent citizens.

While some refugee students excel and thrive in their new host country, others experience great difficulty with adjusting into a new school system. Academic difficulties may be a result of language barriers, disrupted schooling, distress from forced migration, or financial difficulties (e.g. food insecurity or having to work long hours while also attending school).

Research has also identified significant gaps in both teacher preparation and school readiness to support successful integration for newcomers, particularly children who have come from conflict-affected countries.[2] Teachers may even inadvertently contribute to the continuing struggles of students or their re-traumatization, simply by not knowing about their pre-migration or trans-migration experiences. For students who have experienced trauma, something as simple as displaying a poster that triggers past memories may result in distress. Although identifying all of the potential triggers would be difficult, there are certain precautions teachers and school leaders can take to create trauma-sensitive classrooms and schools.

Nhân đạo: Trauma-sensitive schools and safe classrooms
The Vietnamese term nhân đạo – used as an overarching phrase to capture “the state of being humane in caring for and loving others” – is an axiom guiding the practice of inner-city middle school principal, Tam Dui. In a three-year research program carried out in Manitoba, Alberta and Newfoundland, we explored best practices for supporting the integration of refugee students. During phase one, our participants frequently told us to go and talk to Tam Dui* and to see what his school, Anthony Graham Middle School* in Winnipeg, was doing to support refugee students. [*NOTE: The names of both the principal and the school in this article have been changed, in accordance with the ethical requirements of Dr. Stewart’s research.] We decided to take a more in-depth look at how Tam and the staff have created a culture where all students feel connected to the school community and where families feel welcome to come into the building to share and collaborate with school staff. The school, and Tam’s unique leadership style, provide an exemplar model on which to guide future practice and inform school improvement to better meet the needs of refugee youth.

If a student is feeling threatened in your classroom, there will be little learning.

Tam was himself a Vietnamese refugee who arrived in Winnipeg as a child in 1979, and he knows first-hand the reality of what it means to be relocated to another country. Referring to himself as an “old newcomer,” Tam reflects that 35 years ago, when he first arrived in Canada, his family stayed at the Memorial Hotel just two blocks down the street from where he now serves as the principal. He states, “So the route is really circular, it’s the cycle of life in some way, it’s a series of opportunities. Just as I received a lot of service and a lot of opportunities, this is now part of that circle that I give back to the next generation of people.” Guiding his practice is a desire to build a solid connection with students, their families and the community. That’s why each morning, staff and students know where to find Mr. Dui: at the bus drop-off at the front door of the school as he personally greets each student, staff member and visitor, even in -40 degree temperatures.

Tam and the Anthony Graham staff have created a culture of care and compassion that informs their day-to-day interactions. They aim to provide a welcoming and safe space where refugee youth and their families come together to learn, interact and engage with each other and their new culture. When Tam learned that many of his newcomer families missed eating certain vegetables from their homeland and that many were in need of activities to keep them busy, Tam’s family donated farmland and there is now a robust gardening club where students and parents farm together and learn about growing food from around the world. Each weekend a school bus transports parents and students to a farm south of the city to work together looking after the crops and while doing this, the newcomers practice speaking English and learn about local farming practices. Through Tam’s connections in the city, local organizations and businesses have donated seeds, equipment and start-up funds to help assist the gardeners.

Within the school, staff and students are uniquely divided into four teams: Team Humility, Team Wisdom, Team Courage and Team Truth. Each team has three homeroom teachers and specific core teachers who teach the same students from Grades 7 to 9. Tam believes this organization allows the teachers to form more meaningful relationships with the students and to monitor more closely students who are dealing with adverse situations or challenges. With carefully chosen staff and school leaders, Tam stresses the need to have teachers try a term or two at his school before he is convinced they have what it takes. Tam notes, “When it comes to inviting staff into our community, they have to have compassion, the heart has to be there and there needs to be a trusting relationship that creates a safe place where conversations can occur – and you cannot always see this in an interview.”

Tam believes that providing a safe place where students feel respected and honoured is essential for learning to take place. “We know the trauma is there, we recognize that students have had horrific experiences and it is our job to create a space where they can be safe, feel cared for, and be open to learning,” he says.

Guiding principles for supporting refugee students
A trauma-sensitive school is not intended to be therapy-focused; rather, it is an environment that acknowledges the potential for traumatic experiences in the lives of students and creates universal supports that are sensitive to the unique needs of each student, while being attentive to avoiding the possibility of re-traumatization. When we took a closer look at the activities, support programs and teaching strategies offered at Anthony Graham, and combined these with the literature on supporting refugee students, we uncovered some unique approaches and best practices that we believe are necessary for creating safe, trauma-sensitive schools.

Know your students: Take the time to learn about where your students come from and acknowledge their past. Be open to hearing their personal story, but remember that behind the trauma story is the story of survival. See students with an “asset perspective” instead of a “deficit perspective.” Help reorient students to focus on the skills, resources and power that they have to get through difficult times. View each student who comes to school as having unique experiences and backgrounds that are worthy of celebrating.

Know and build your community: Teachers, school staff, students, and the community need to collaborate with each other, have a willingness to hear different perspectives, and a readiness to take risks to try new approaches. Invite community members in to organize after-school clubs or a lunch-hour activities. Have a designated “community room” where staff, students, and the community can come together to discuss current issues and plan future events.

Know the signs: Students who are coping with distressing events and experiences might display hyper-arousal, avoidance, withdrawal or disassociation. They might be easily over-stimulated and lack a readiness to learn. Communicating and self-expression may be difficult and problem-solving and decision-making may be compromised. Students who have experienced trauma may have difficulty regulating emotions; you might see a state of calmness one moment and anxiety or anger the next. Fear and concern for their own safety or the safety of their family members may occupy their thoughts. If a student is feeling threatened in your classroom, there will be little learning. As a colleague once said, “You can’t teach away trauma.” A sense of security and trust are the foundation for providing support to students; once safety has been established, the process of healing can begin. Healing takes time and the process of settling and adjustment can take years. Listen to what students and parents tell you they need, and know that some will talk and others will not. Be open to listening and providing comfort and support.

Know who can help: If you have concerns about the safety of the student or the safety of others, refer to the next level of care. If you have a “gut feeling” that something is wrong, trust your instincts and get additional support. A counsellor or therapist may need to be involved when you see serious changes in behaviour, or when the student talks or writes about death, dying or suicide. Significant substance abuse and heightened aggression or protectiveness are also signs that the student needs more support. Work with the student’s family or caregivers and ensure that you are working together to support the student.When there are cultural issues that you may not fully understand, seek out the help of a cultural broker or support worker. Settlement agencies and community groups can be a tremendous support to school staff and when the various systems work together, a more holistic and supportive environment is created. Link to mental health professionals in your community and know who you can go to for help or guidance. Welcome assistance into your school and classroom – there are many support people in the community who are ready and willing to help out.

Know yourself: Working with refugee students can be rewarding and also extremely difficult. There is a personal impact from hearing about the trauma, torture, violence and persecution inflicted on others. It is common to feel helpless and overwhelmed. It can be extremely distressing to hear about violations to children and the impact this has had on a child’s life. For many teachers, it can seem like an overwhelming task to support the increasing numbers of students coming who are dealing with various forms of trauma. In some cases, you may be the only support in a student’s life and this can be a tremendous feeling of responsibility. Know your personal signs of stress and distress and know when, and how, to look after your own mental health.

Supporting children from refugee backgrounds can be a challenging journey and it can also be a process of renewed hope and opportunity. According to Tam Dui, you need three things to do this kind of work: “Competence, character, and chemistry. Can you do the work? Do you have the character and compassion to do the work? Do you have the chemistry to get along and trust each other to get the work done?” A new start offers refugee students hope and promise for a better future. If we do the work, schools can provide an environment of care and compassion that fosters acceptance and supports the successful integration of Canada’s newest citizens.

Dr. Stewart’s research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Mitacs, and the Canadian Education and Research Institute for Counselling.

En Bref : Tenant compte des défis relevés par de nombreux réfugiés et des difficultés liées à une réinstallation forcée, cet article examine ce que peuvent faire les écoles et les éducateurs canadiens pour répondre aux besoins des élèves réfugiés. Parmi les constatations d’un programme de recherche de trois ans examinant les pratiques exemplaires de soutien d’élèves réfugiés, se démarquent un directeur d’école de quartier urbain défavorisé et son personnel, qui s’efforcent de créer un environnement sûr favorisant les liens interculturels, un sentiment d’appartenance et un engagement à faire preuve d’attention et de compassion.

Photo: Joel Carillet (istock)

First published in Education Canada, March 2017


[1] “Facts and Figures,” Citizenship and Immigration Canada (2015). http://open.canada.ca/data/en/dataset/052642bb-3fd9-4828-b608-c81dff7e539c?_ga=1.36645155.2008133524.1243358834

[2] Jan Stewart, Supporting Refugee Children: Strategies for educators (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), 131-150.