It can be frustrating for teachers of refugee students when they often receive no response from parents to letters and notifications sent home with children in their take-home folders or backpacks. Do the parents even care about their kids? Why is it that they never show up to any of the school functions or meetings? At least come to parent-teacher conferences, for Pete’s sake! Is it really that difficult to show an interest in the education and future of your child?
If a teacher expresses frustration in these ways to refugee parents, they are likely to get either a blank stare or a look that hides what truly is boiling underneath. An American teacher’s cultural lens and ignorance of the refugee family’s situation can break down any communication between refugee families and schools or even prevent it from ever beginning. It is vital that teachers take the time to truly get to know the refugee population that live and work in their communities so that they can better understand and appreciate the best ways to teach the children of that community.
One of the first steps is to find out more about the background of the refugee group or groups in the community attending school. This can help teachers learn more about the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder among the population, any war or persecution that the group has fled, about life in refugee camps (if applicable), etc. This attempt at understanding is crucial if any meaningful communication is to be conducted and carried out over the long term between schools and refugee parents. However, teachers must be careful not to let the horror stories blind them to the fact that parents are working toward independence and self-sufficiency both financially and culturally. It is best to facilitate and encourage this independence and resourcefulness in whatever ways are appropriate and helpful.
It must also be understood that refugee resettlement agencies that serve as case managers for refugee families do not always have all the answers. They do not have access to people that can translate at a moment’s notice or pick sick children up from school. They are not always able to serve as a conduit for information to families of every refugee child. They are not the families’ keepers, and they don’t have the resources to be so.
Refugee parents often work day and night shifts at entry-level jobs in factories, hospitality, in restaurants, etc. just to make ends meet. They may then attend adult education/GED or English classes after work. They most likely will not have a license or a car to drive. However, do not assume that refugee parents are pre- or illiterate, uneducated, or unaware of society around them. You may very well find university-educated physicians who must completely re-qualify to practice medicine in the United States working at McDonald’s.
It is also important to learn as much as possible about how education is viewed by refugee parents from their cultural perspective. Some information may be found out about this by a bit of digging and research, and it will come best from direct conversations with parents. Some refugees may feel that it is best not to interfere with what the school teaches, that the teacher knows best, etc. Some may feel that it is a teacher’s responsibility to deal with behavioral issues as well, more so than the parents’.
Some resources on the subject of refugees and schools can be found at the Bridging Refugee Youth and Children’s Services website. Also, part of an article about engaging refugee parents in participatory conversations about what they see as important in their children’s education can be found here.