Methods: This study seeks to understand the patterns of student engagement among Muslim refugee youth upon resettling in Chicago. The study consists of 30 Muslim refugee youth (ages 13-19) who resettled to the US in the last 5 years, their parents (30), and several staff members from the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society (IMAS) who work closely with the families. Participant observations and semi-structured, in-depth interviews were collected through IMAS and the Syrian Community Network (SCN), secular non-profit organizations assisting refugees from Middle Eastern countries. Interviews were conducted with the assistance of a translator and lasted no longer than an hour. Interviews elicited participants’ firsthand experiences of schooling in the US, their unique perceptions of the social context, and knowledge about what they need in order to feel supported by school staff. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and coded thematically using MAXQDA qualitative software, guided by the principles of a phenomenological approach to qualitative analysis with the goal to understand the meanings around human interactions.
Results: Data analysis reveals that Muslim refugee youth tend to feel more adjusted to their schools when the school staff are of Middle Eastern and North African descent or possess some familiarity with the plight of refugees from that region. Moreover, participants describe how they feel compelled to push back on the dominant narrative of “good Muslims” versus “bad Muslims” portrayed in media outlets by performing well in school. Several parent participants note levels of discomfort with engaging the school due to language and cultural barriers, but often do not feel compelled to participate in school-related functions if their children have demonstrated academic success. Finally, the data suggests that youth often act as translators of school policies and expectations, acting as a liaison between school staff and their parents.
Conclusion and Implications: This study provides an empirical opportunity to learn about refugees’ firsthand experiences of schooling in the US, their unique perceptions of the social context, and knowledge about what they need in order to feel supported by school staff and ready for the future labor market. Interventions delivered within school and community settings by educators and school social workers can be successful in helping children overcome difficulties associated with forced migration.