(Reposted from: Harvard REACH. November 17, 2020)
By Basma Hajir
Refugee education policy has recently focused on promoting the integration of refugees in national education systems. The provision of ‘quality education’ has also increasingly become central to debates on education for refugees. However, in my recent research in a public school in Lebanon, school-level experiences of Syrian children underscore that where refugees are included in national schools, they continue to feel excluded from some opportunities that might improve their psychosocial well-being. My research also reveals that establishing a school culture of care, in addition to physically and psychologically safe environments, is crucial in addressing students’ perspectives on ‘quality education’.
Two groups of Syrian children participated in my research: one group who attended the morning shift alongside Lebanese students, and another group who attended an exclusively afternoon shift of all Syrian learners. Participating students used digital cameras and took photos to represent matters they valued and deemed relevant to their education. I also conducted follow-up photo elicitation interviews with them.
Students’ photos and reflections advocated for a school culture of care that they deemed necessary for promoting their learning capacities. They reported a sense of frustration with a school environment that seems to be disrupted by frequently occurring fights among students. All participating students in the afternoon shift chose to simulate situations of violence through posing for photographs to represent an aspect of their school life, while commenting on the lack of consequences for getting involved in fights (Image 1). One student said: “When someone beats up my brother, I can’t but fight back because I know teachers won’t do anything.” Another student explained: “Violence among students is a repeated scene in our school”.
Students from the two shifts took sport-related photos and photos of artwork. Excited at first to see these photos, the interviews revealed the underlying disappointments and concerns of students who attended the afternoon shift. Students in the morning shift wanted to express how happy they were with their Art and Sport classes. One participant took a photo of an artwork and said:
“We enjoy it when we have art classes. We know we might participate in exhibitions. It feels great to do that!”
A completely different sentiment was expressed in the exclusively Syrian afternoon shift where students used their photographs to express their disappointment and frustration with the complete lack of Art or Sport classes. One of the children took a photo of a basket in the school yard and then elaborated:
“I wanted to express that we want to play football and basketball. I wanted to take a photo of the ball but there is no ball, so I took a photo of the basket instead.” (Image 2)
Other students took photos of paintings hung around the school walls. One photo was of a colorful painting of a bird (Image 3). The girl who took the photo said:
“This painting is drawn by a student in the morning shift. I took a photo of it to say that this is unfair. We should have art classes like them.”
Caring and equitable school climate
Due attention needs to be given to fostering a more caring and equitable school climate. Refugee students have different educational needs due to disadvantage and injustice. Years of conflict and displacement have led many Syrian children to directly or indirectly experience trauma. From the lens of trauma-informed education, quality education cannot be delivered without an adequate understanding of how students’ adverse experiences have cognitive, emotional, and social effects on their learning. Participants in my research expressed their need for healing and skills for community building. Both Sport and Art education could serve as protective factors for students exposed to trauma and violence. Sport enables a level of physicality and teamwork that can be healing, whilst the expressive possibility inherent in artistic endeavors can help students process traumatic experiences (Kay & Arnold, 2014) and develop empathy for the other (Heise, 2014).
In the context of this study, a singular focus on refugee students’ academic learning in detriment of the psychosocial is accompanied with feelings of exclusion, injustice, and a lack of safety at school. While building competencies in foundational literacy and numeracy is undoubtedly foundational to refugee students, my research shows that quality education, a school culture of care, and the psychosocial well-being of students are closely interconnected. Studies have shown before that attending to both academic and social-emotional needs of students is positively correlated with an improved overall school learning environment, a better classroom engagement, and a higher level of academic achievement (Côté-Lussier & Fitzpatrick, 2016). More work is thus needed to address the frequently invoked dichotomy in debates on refugee education between supporting children’s wellbeing and promoting their academic learning.