|Teaching and Learning Forum 2007 [ Refereed papers ]|
Jaya Earnest, Tambri Housen and Sue Gillieatt
Centre for International Health
Curtin University of Technology
Today's migration patterns have shifted in ways that bring new challenges to educators. New refugee arrivals in developed countries are an extremely diverse group. As a result, multiple approaches must be developed addressing the needs of diverse, multicultural and multilingual refugee and migrant populations. It has been clearly demonstrated that refugee children and adolescents are vulnerable to the effects of pre-migration, most notably exposure to trauma. In educational settings refugee students bring new challenges; many experienced educators are facing for the first time.
The main aims of the project were to investigate and explore ways in which refugee adolescent youth perceive their experience of transition and resettlement into Australia and to examine the challenges faced by adolescent refugees in acquiring an Australian education. The research used a case study approach within a qualitative framework based on focus group interviews with 45 young refugees, school visits, in depth key informant interviews and accumulation of documentary data. The research approach interwove migration, resettlement and identity formation into an understanding of psychosocial wellbeing and educational experiences of adolescent refugees in Western Australia.
This study argues that government departments (health, education and community development) need to work together to create a supportive and enabling environment to improve the wellbeing of refugee adolescents and provides preliminary recommendations for further research into strategies that will improve educational and mental health outcomes for these young people.
Recent studies in New South Wales and Victoria have identified complex issues and the need to further examine potential solutions so as to ease the transition for African refugee students. Issues of pedagogy, teacher and student identities, social relations, parental/guardian and community involvement, learning styles, resources for learning and the impact of trauma, displacement and readjustment on language acquisition were documented (Cassity and Gow, 2005; Gunn, 2005; Miller et al. 2005; Olliff and Couch, 2005). African refugee students place education as a high priority, often possessing high expectations of education and future employment (Cassity and Gow, 2005). Unfortunately, the current system in Australia is failing them. Research has shown that 63% of African refugee students with more than two years of interrupted schooling and almost 90% of them with no prior schooling failed to complete year 12 (Warrick, 2000 Cited by Davies et al. 2001). If these young people are to successfully integrate and realise their future goals, they must be provided with the tools to do so.
The research that has been carried out to date among this vulnerable group is limited and identifies the need for further research to identify effective teaching strategies, methods and resources (Davies et al. 2001; Miller et al. 2005; Muir, 2004). The Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) recognises that English language proficiency is the most significant indicator for successful resettlement (DIMIA, 2003). In order for these young refugees to break free of the poverty trap, attain their goals and regain a sense of self worth, the education community in Australia must prioritise research that aids the development of appropriate approaches and resources to maximise language and skill acquisition and improve learning outcome in this new profile of students.
Responses were conceptualised within the larger framework of viewing psychosocial well-being within three domains; social ecology (relationships linking individuals within and between communities); human capacity (mental health and well being); and culture and values (the value and meaning given to behaviour and experience). By looking at an individual or community thru these 'lenses' it is possible to begin to unpack the nature and degree of impact life events and circumstances have on the individual. The conceptual model suggests a way of evaluating the impact of past and present events by looking directly at the effect of the resource domains (Strang and Ager, 2001).
The terms Parents and Guardians are joined purposively as the compositions of African refugee families in particular are often complex and indefinable. Many of the African refugees participating in the study entered Australia with siblings, extended family members or tribal community members.
Amalgamated families are not uncommon...made up of children they have picked up along the way during the crisis in their country, some of these children have no parents. (IEC principal)Most of the adolescents felt that their parents/guardians had a difficult time adjusting to Australia, experiencing language barriers, inability to find work and isolation. The parents/guardians often depend on their adolescent children to assist in the home, accompany them to the doctors, Centrelink or the bank as revealed by these interview quotes.
It is hard for my mum.... Hard for her to shop, no Sudanese are living close to us. Mum went to TAFE but too difficult for her... wants to learn to drive but license too expensive.... I sometimes miss school because my mum needs help.The literature suggests and results from this study revealed that involving parents in educational settings can help decrease inter-generational stress, facilitates in engaging parents and allows parents to participate in the culture and lives of their children (Rousseau, 1995, Cassity and Gow, 2005, Blair and Bourne, 1998). It is further suggested that involving the ethnic communities in school activities eases the transition and facilitates the psychosocial well-being of refugee students.
My mother is sad, she has no language and no friends... the culture is different, she misses her parents and says she wants to go back to Afghanistan.
Interview quotes also identify the disruption of family structures, altered role of the young refugees within the family, loss of friendship and peer support, isolation from culturally similar communities and lack of involvement in the community outside of school effecting social engagement.
IEC staff identified poor social skills, problematic behaviour and lack of coping mechanisms as common issues among the current cohort of refugee students. Many of the IEC staff appreciated the challenging backgrounds of their students and recognised many of the behavioural difficulties as a direct result of the multiple stressors on their lives.
Most of them suffer from PTSD but it is different for all of them....some of them have been witnesses of lots of traumatic events, they have had lots of loss in their life. (IEC Psychologist)Teachers expressed a stretching of their primary teaching role to encompass a greater role of support, mediation, social coaching, conflict management skills and behaviour management.
Another problem all the teachers are finding is in the students' behaviour. Not only academically are they functioning at a very low level but, behaviourally and psychologically the kids have very few strategies for actually resolving conflict. (IEC deputy principal)
Because they have never been to school they don't have the social skills that we would expect teenagers to have when it comes to living. Getting the kids to sit down for 10-15 minutes at a time is a problem...I reckon that the first 3-4 months when students arrive in an IEC centre we are just trying to teach social skills (IEC deputy principle)IEC staff stated that 'Anger' was a common emotion expressed by students and that they required very little provocation to reach heightened Anger levels, this was more common among African students whereas withdrawal was commonly seen in youth of Middle Eastern and Asian cultural backgrounds. Poor concentration, memory and in some situations very poor cognitive ability were considered issues among the current cohort of refugee adolescents. Research studies examining the psychological impact of living in conflict areas have found that PTSD reactions are commonly experienced among those coming from countries experiencing war (Montgomery, 1996, Ahearn and Athey, 1991).
It is surprising then to note that given the adolescents history of trauma, only one school had access to an IEC psychologist 3 days per week. It was made clear this was a result of much lobbying from the IEC principal. Other schools had an IEC psychologist available from a half day to full day per week. In one school a waiting list in excess of 1 month was reported for a consultation with the IEC psychologist.
I started at IEC 1 and was very disappointed. I had a year 10 certificate from completing studies in a town in Thailand. I had hoped to go on to University... I am very disappointed.The issue of unrealistic educational expectations has been reported in other studies looking at similar target groups (Cassity and Gow, 2005, Oliff and Couch, 2005). In order for students with so many hurdles to overcome, it is important they establish realistic goals that provide a sense of achievement and encouragement when reached. Analysis of key informant interviews identified important programmatic areas that require development to further support the psychosocial needs of refugee students.
I went to boarding school in Ghana....and am now only in IEC 12... it takes a long time to get to university.... I have to run the house and look after my sister and brother...... counselling here says it is too hard, people discourage you about doing your TEE.....there should be more encouragement. I am too busy being a mum....it affects my study....
It is a really big issue with the limited schooling kids. Cognitively they are just not aware of how much more they need to learn because they can talk to us on a daily basis they think they are well on their way to going to UNI [University] now and they don't see all the hidden aspects of a child at school, the study that mainstream kids put in.......it is like they see it as osmosis. I sit here I will learn. You can't make them see it until they are ready to see it.....it is a process they have to go thru before it clicks in. (IEC teacher)
Negotiations with some universities in Western Australia have resulted in a special entry category for African refugee university applicants. There are now a number of such students studying under various disciplines in tertiary institutions in Perth.
The study has attempted to argue that government departments (health, education and community development), need to work together to create a supportive and enabling environment to improve the wellbeing of refugee children. The project was able to highlight needs and important gaps in service provision for young recently arrived refugees. It is hoped that this initiative will encourage the allocation of funding for more support staff and resource allocation to programmes that build on this vulnerable population's capacity, strengthening psychosocial well-being.
As a result of informing the Department of Health, Department of Community Development and the Department of Education of outcomes, the study hopes that new policies and interventions will assist and support young adolescent refugees in the enculturation process. The results can be used to re-align objectives of curriculum, teacher education, student engagement and possibly resettlement programs to ones that are more relevant and suited to the needs of adolescent refugee children and youth taking into consideration the country they have come from.
Further research is required to explore cultural, family and support dimensions of resettlement and enculturation. There is almost no research on the ramifications for higher education institutions and university teaching and learning in relation to refugee students. Currently, even though the numbers of university students from the refugee students in universities is relatively small, educators need to be prepared to understand diversity in student intakes and to be alert to providing the best possible opportunities for refugee students.
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|Author: Jaya Earnest has more than twenty years experience working in universities and schools in India, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, East Timor and Australia as an educator, school principal and researcher. Jaya was educated in India and England and in 2003 completed her PhD at Curtin University, where she is currently a Lecturer at the Centre for International Health and in the Research Unit for the Study of Societies in Change. She is involved in research projects in India, Western Australia and East Timor. Postal: Dr Jaya Earnest, Centre for International Health, Curtin University of Technology, GPO Box U1987, Perth Western, Australia 6845. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tambri Housen is a Research Assistant at the Centre for International Health, Curtin University of Technology. A Registered Nurse, she has worked in several countries of the world, especially in refugee settings in southern Sudan. She has been involved with an ongoing study on refugee adolescents in Western Australia.
Sue Gillieatt is a Lecturer and the Associate Director of the Centre for International Health. She has more than a decade's experience in postgraduate teaching and curricula development in international health and social work. Sue has taught in several courses relevant to international health. She has also worked with graduates from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Lao PDR, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam. In addition, she has social work experience in health systems.
Please cite as: Earnest, J., Housen, T. and Gillieatt, S. (2007). A new cohort of refugee students in Perth: Challenges for students and educators. In Student Engagement. Proceedings of the 16th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 30-31 January 2007. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2007/refereed/earnest.html
Copyright 2007 Jaya Earnest, Tambri Housen and Sue Gillieatt. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.