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.