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Category: Research
Teaching and Learning Forum 2007 [ Refereed papers ]
A new cohort of refugee students in Perth: Challenges for students and educators

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.


Background to the study

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) basic facts

UNHCR's founding mandate defines refugees as persons who are outside their country and cannot return owing to a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group. At the end of 2005, the number of people 'of concern' to UNHCR stood at nearly 30 million. They included asylum seekers, refugees, internally displaced people, returned refugees, and stateless persons (UNHCR, 2006).

Australia's humanitarian refugee policy

In 1981 Australia's Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) was established to assist individuals and families that suffered human rights abuses in their country of origin but did not meet the refugee category criteria. Australia had a comprehensive refugee system by the 1990s, allocating an average of 13,000 places annually under its humanitarian program since 1998. Since 2003-04 a large majority of resettlement grants have been allocated to those of African origin (over 70%), with Middle-Eastern and South-West Asian making up the remainder. These entrants are eligible under the Integrated Humanitarian Settlement Strategy (IHSS) to receive 6 months of intensive settlement support. Services include on arrival reception and assistance, English language instruction, education, accommodation support, settlement support, Centrelink benefits, emergency medical attention and short-term torture and trauma counselling. During the 2003-04 intake 1200 people assisted under the Integrated Humanitarian Settlement Strategy were settled in the Perth Metropolitan area (Department of Parlimentary Services, 2005). The majority of entrants are young refugees requiring or seeking further education in Australia.

A review of literature

Education challenges

The profile of recent refugee children and youth has been recognised as unique, with the large majority having a history of trauma, multiple displacements, extended stays in refugee camps and severely disrupted schooling (Muir, 2004; McBrien, 2005). Teachers with many years of experience educating refugee children are dealing with student needs and expectations not faced previously, giving rise to new challenges in student engagement and pedagogical dilemmas. Teachers are reported to be feeling ill-equipped to respond to these challenges and the existing curriculum and resources are said to be inadequate to meet the needs of these students (Miller et al. 2005; Sangster, 2001; Gebherd, 2003).

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.

Acculturative stress and inter-generational stress

Acculturative stress (that is stress due to difficulties associated with adapting to a new culture) also places refugee/asylum seeking children and adolescents at greater psychological risk. For example, difficulties at school and in language acquisition have been shown to predict poor adaptation (Rousseau, 1995). Intergenerational conflict arises when children and adolescents, particularly adolescents, adapt much faster than their parents. As such, the authority of parents is often compromised by virtue of their dependence on children for language and cultural access to the host society (Hyman, et al, 2000). Other factors to have a negative influence on the mental health in refugee children and adolescents include low socio-economic status (Howard & Hodes, 2000); long-term unemployment in parents, particularly fathers; school problems, language problems; and discrimination (Hyman et al, 2000).

School psychosocial health promotion

School Psychosocial Health promotion is the framework within which effective prevention and early intervention can be accomplished. It is relevant to the whole community as it is applicable regardless of current mental health status and across health intervention spectrums. School Psychosocial Health promotion as a process aims at giving power, knowledge, skills and necessary resources to individuals, families and the whole communities (European Community, 1999). It thus has the potential to become an important modality to overcome barriers to access services as well as ways of effectively intervening with refugee children. Schools also provide a potential avenue to engage parents and create a bridge between the worlds of family and school. Schools provide an orientation and education about the larger culture and can help in reducing the acculturative gap between parents and children (Delgado-Galtan, 1991).

Research design

The aims

The aims of this study were to:
  1. Investigate and Examine how adolescent refugee children perceive the process of migration, loss, resettlement and consequent acculturation;
  2. Discuss refugee adolescent views of their personal, economic and social environment, the nature of everyday experiences at school, struggles over language & skill acquisition, attainment of educational goals and formation of emerging identities;
  3. Identify the multiple stressors that refugee adolescents and youth have to cope with during the process of acculturation and acquiring educational.

The approach

The research used a case study approach within a qualitative framework. A combination of multiple research methods was utilised within the constructive and critical theory perspective. This study also drew on a constructive perspective, which assumed that there are multiple realities in which the researchers and their subjects create their own understanding (von Glasersfeld, 1993). The critical theory perspective implied that reality is shaped over time by social, political, cultural, ethnic and gender factors (Guba & Lincoln, 1994).

The conceptual framework

The conceptual framework used for this study rested on the assumption that psychosocial well-being of an individual is defined with respect to three core interlocking domains: human capacity, social ecology and culture and values. These domains map the human social and cultural capital available to people responding to the challenges of prevailing events and conditions (Psychosocial Working Group, 2003). This framework encourages the exploration of the goals and priorities of existing programmes that deal with vulnerable populations. Understanding the interdependency between the domains enables barriers to be identified and promote planning and implementation of interventions/action plans.

Methods of data collection

An approach, sensitive to the context of the lives of the young refugee adolescents included in-depth interviews, focus group interviews, school visits, and accumulation of documentary data took into account social action that was locally distinct (Punch, 1998, Erickson, 1998).

Sample: Refugee adolescents

The data for this research was obtained from 45 secondary school students from 4 government secondary schools in Perth, Western Australia. A purposive sample was selected from among Intensive English Centres (IECs) in four government schools in Perth metropolitan area. The students were selected by the respective, IEC principals. Students were chosen according to the following criteria. They had been accepted to Australia as refugees and entered the country under a special humanitarian visa[1] or under the Refugee Category[2].

Focus group discussions

A total of 6 focus group discussions took place with students in April 2006. Each group met for approximately 45 minutes and comprised an average of 6 participants the largest group had 8. The FGD were held at the respective schools, during school hours. Students had adequate oral English proficiency to participate in discussion without the need for interpreters.

Key informants interviews

Key informants were selected according to their involvement with adolescent refugees. A range was sought with key informants selected from those that have direct daily contact with students during school hours, those that work with young refugees in the community and heads of departments that may have influence on policy development directly affecting the target population. Fourteen key informant interviews were undertaken, participants included: the 4 principals of the IECs, an IEC psychologist, 2 IEC teachers, 2 student support workers, a service area consultant with the Department of Education, Employment and Training (DEET), a senior policy officer for culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) youth in the Department of Community Development (DCD) and a representative from ASeTTS (Association for Services to Torture and Trauma Survivors) in Western Australia and a representative from one of the African communities. A systematic in-depth review of documents, articles and literature pertaining to wellbeing of refugee children in Australia was carried out.

Quality standards in the study

Rigour

Steps were taken throughout the data collection and analysis to establish trustworthiness of the method and findings. Multiple methods provided varying perspectives on the subject enabling the development of a more holistic and contextual portrayal of real-life situations (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000). Multiple research methods also served to 'triangulate' resulting themes as they evolved during analysis (Lincoln & Guba, 2000). Verification strategies such as systematic checking of data and ongoing monitoring and interpretation of data were used to achieve reliability and validity. Constant analysis of incoming data guided future sampling and questioning strategies to ensure confirmation of newly formed conjectures.

Ethical considerations of the project

This research is being carried out in accordance with the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines. The project was approved by the Human Research Ethics Committee of the Office of Research and Development of Curtin University of Technology. All interview participants especially the refugee adolescents and their parents were required to read a one-page information sheet outlining the objectives of the study and the requirements associated with participation. All participants were made aware that participation was voluntary and that consent may be withdrawn at any time. This study required the participation of adolescents and youth between the ages of 13-19 years of age and hence had a small group of minors. Appropriate permission was sought from parents with letters of consent being sent out from the school to the children's homes. Every care was taken in the selection of participants. Any student who was deemed to be potentially at any risk of experiencing discomfort or distress was excluded. All data collection occurred during school time to ensure the presence of the appropriate school staff.

Analysis and discussion

The 6 FGDs were comprised of 45 IEC students from Ethiopia (2), Afghanistan (7), Myanmar (4), Iran (1), Southern Sudan (14), Democratic Republic of the Congo (3), Liberia (8), Rwanda (1), Sierra Leone (5) and Kenya (1). In all, 10 countries were represented. The age range was 12-21yrs, with the median age being 15yrs. Most of the participants had experienced displacement due to civil conflict or other forms of political instability. During the transition period, from flight from their country of origin until settlement in Australia, participants lived in 1 or more countries (excluding their country of origin). Between them the refugee adolescent had lived in 14 different countries prior to arriving in Australia. The length of time students had been in Australia ranged from 1 month to 24 months with the median time being 9 months. The majority of students arrived with 1 or both parents, with/without siblings and members of extended family. Students reported two main channels of assistance to come to Australia. Some were sponsored by family/friends living in Australia, others applied through the UNHCR.

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).

Social ecology

Social ecology encompasses social connection and support, relations within family structures, peer groups, cultural and religious institutions and school. There is strong evidence linking effective social engagement to mental health outcomes (Ager. et al. 2002). The disruption of family and social networks depletes resources needed to manage emotional and practical challenges associated with relocation.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Human capacity

Human capacity is constituted by the health (physical and mental) and knowledge and skills of an individual. Reduced sense of control over life events and circumstances have a detrimental effect on human capacity, as does poor physical or mental health and lack of employment opportunities.

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)

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)

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.
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.

Higher education and career aspirations

The students all expressed high career aspirations. These included journalist, business, hairdresser, doctor, computer expert, musician, police, electrician, fashion designer, sports related careers, soldier, doctor, actress, lawyer, engineer, pilot, secretary, and teacher. Some students indicated disappointment that previous education experiences had not prepared them as well as they had perceived. Interview quotes with students highlight perceived lack of employment opportunities, poor English acquisition among parents/guardians and poor understanding of Australian education and employment pathways as threats to human capacity. The realisation that achieving their career goals was not as simple as they had believed it to be was discouraging. Career counsellors had reinforced these feelings, in one case.
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.

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)

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.

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.

Thoughts about the future

Asked about their current worries and thoughts about the future, the young adolescents revealed that they were worried about the future. Most were worried about completing their studies, gaining competency in English, obtaining higher education and finding employment. All of them wanted part-time and vacation jobs so that they could help their extended families back home. They also want to bring other members of their family to Australia. All the FGDs revealed a sense of hope and a desire to obtain skills and qualifications. Interviews with students and staff indicated an inner strength that drives students to strive for educational outcomes that would enable them to accomplish their hopes of a better future. It is important that relevant government departments recognise this strong desire to build positive and productive futures should be supported not suppressed.

Recommendations from the study

  1. Educational and Career pathways of refugee adolescents must be realistic and attainable with potential challenges and barriers identified and understood by both students and parents in order for barriers to be overcome and the end goal to be achieved.

  2. It is important that schools having a large number of refugee children have the support of a qualified and sensitive career counsellor who understands the contexts of adolescent refugee students.

  3. Important programmatic areas that require development to further support the psychosocial needs of refugee students need to be funded by the Department of Education. These include

  4. Partnerships with parents/guardians needs to be facilitated at a greater level by the schools so as to improve, transition programmes from IEC to mainstream and a revision of IEC eligibility towards a needs-based approach needs to be undertaken.

Conclusion

The needs of refugee youth are complex and multi-faceted, requiring a co-ordinated approach between educational institutions, families, communities and service agencies. The data from this study demonstrates the complexities and many challenges young refugees face during the acculturation process. Their pre and post migration experiences culminate with the stressors of resettlement in Australia, demanding extraordinary levels of resilience and coping in order to maintain psychosocial well-being. This study has also revealed that schools and educational institutions represent the setting where many of the hopes of refugee adolescents and youth materialise. The refugee adolescents and youth find school a safe environment where friendships are established. They enjoy learning and the routine that school provides. Ethnic assistants and student support workers have proved an invaluable resource both to schools in this study and others.

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.

Endnotes

  1. Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) category: Entrants are people outside their home country who have suffered substantial discrimination amounting to gross violation of their human rights and who have been proposed by an Australian citizen, resident or community group in Australia. (DIMIA, 2005)
  2. Refugee Category: includes people outside their country of nationality, who are subject to persecution in their home country and have been identified in conjunction with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as in need of resettlement (DIMIA, 2005)

Acknowledgements

The researchers would like to acknowledge the invaluable contribution made by the adolescent refugees and the staff of the IECs. This paper is part of a larger study that was made possible through a Healthway starter grant.

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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: j.earnest@curtin.edu.au

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.


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