Abstract: "I Want to Feel Safe at My School. I Want to Feel like I Belong": Exploring Muslim Refugee Students' Levels of Engagement in Schools (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

"I Want to Feel Safe at My School. I Want to Feel like I Belong": Exploring Muslim Refugee Students' Levels of Engagement in Schools

Friday, January 17, 2020
Independence BR C, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Ashley Cureton, PhD, Provost Postdoctoral Fellow; Graduate of the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration (PhD & MSW), The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD
Background and Purpose: As the number of refugee children and youth continues to grow, the educational and social emotional needs require more and sustained attention. A high proportion of refugees are children and youth. In the past decade, there has been an increase in the number of refugee children and youth entering the US, undergoing a myriad of migration-related stresses that influence adaptation to their new school environment. Refugee youth often have experienced heightened levels of violence and trauma prior to their fleeing their countries of origin and, compared to adults, are at heightened risk for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, maladaptive grief, social withdrawal, and behavioral and academic difficulties. Refugee children and youth encounter a variety of academic, economic and psychosocial challenges, including separation from family, cultural dissonance, acculturation stress, host country language deficiency, gaps in schooling, distrust or fear of school personnel, conflicting expectations between families and school faculty, and limited financial resources. Muslim refugees from the Middle East are a particularly vulnerable group, facing concerns such as mental health challenges, acculturation stress, and Islamophobia and discrimination based on religion and national origin.

Methods: This study employs an interpretivist paradigm, prioritizing students’ meanings and understandings of their schooling experiences as refugees while simultaneously remaining attentive to their levels of engagement in schools. This study seeks to understand the patterns of student engagement and school-related experiences among Muslim refugee youth upon resettling in Chicago.  The study consists of 28 Muslim refugee youth (ages 13-17) who resettled to the US in the last 5 years. Participant observations and semi-structured, in-depth interviews were collected through the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society (IMAS), a secular non-profit organization assisting refugees from Middle Eastern countries.  Interviews were conducted with the assistance of a translator and lasted no longer than an hour. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and coded thematically using MAXQDA qualitative software.

Results: Data analysis highlights students’ investment to learning English with the goal of excelling in their classes and developing relationships with their peers. Muslim refugee youth also shared anxiety around active participation in their classes due to a lack of confidence in their acquired languages and accents, as well as an unfamiliarity with classroom, school-based norms in a US context. Refugee youth also shared how they typically relied on mentors, tutors and youth workers from local community organizations and refugee resettlement for academic support – not teachers and staff from their local schools.  Finally, students described mixed feelings around their emotional engagement, citing numerous examples of bullying and discrimination from teachers, school staff and their peers.

Conclusion and Implication: 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.  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.