June 16, 2024

Harvard EdCast: How We Can Better Support Refugees in Education

Associate Professor Sarah Dryden-Peterson says we have a lot of learn from the millions of refugees teachers and students in the world, whose lives are disrupted, dominated by exclusion and uncertainty about the future. In her latest research, she shares how governments and international agencies have been hindered in this work and how refugee teachers and students are leading the way. 

>> Read more from Sarah Dryden-Peterson on how governments and education systems around the world can create safe, welcoming spaces for displaced students.

“Refugee teachers and students being in situations where they don’t know if they may be able to continue in education in the school that they’re in tomorrow, if their legal status within the country will be removed, where they don’t know what the situation will be like when they leave the school and enter into a society where they constantly fear for their own safety, but yet continue to try to think within their school experiences about what it means to navigate these inequities, to build a different kind of future,” she says.

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Dryden-Peterson, director of Refugee REACH at HGSE, shares insight into what we’ve learned about how to best reach and develop educational supports for refugee children and teachers.


Jill Anderson: I’m Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. Harvard Professor Sarah Dryden-Peterson knows that we can do a lot better for the nearly 30 million refugees in the world. She’s an expert on refugee education. Sarah says that education needs to create better supports for displaced children whose education is disrupted, dominated by exclusion and uncertainty about the future. In her latest research, she shares how governments and international agencies have been hindered in this work and how refugee teachers and students are leading the way to better educational supports. It’s an interesting time to talk with Sarah, given the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine. I wanted to know what she was thinking, watching this conflict unfold while millions of more people become displaced.

Sarah Dryden-PetersonSarah Dryden-Peterson: So many things. Over the past three weeks at this point, over three million Ukrainians have fled Russia’s invasion of their country, and this includes about a million and a half children, and this is generally what we see globally, is that about half of refugees are children. And of course, this scale of displacement is just devastating, and it’s also devastating for each individual life and for communities. And you asked this question, what has it made me think about? I think it’s made me think a lot about the nature of crisis and about how crisis fosters this sense of the need to focus on now, on this kind of short-term emergency, and of course, it has to be like that in so many ways. Safety food, shelter, the immediate needs are just overwhelming right now for Ukrainians, as they are for so many others elsewhere.

But I also think that in this kind of crisis situation, we often lose sight of the big picture, the kind of collective picture, and that the consequences of losing sight of that picture can be doubly devastating over the long run. And I think that there are really three things that I would love to emphasize about this big collective picture, as we think about children and families fleeing Ukraine. The first is that flight is really only momentarily about the moment of leaving. We know that once displaced, 80% of refugees are displaced for at least five years and 20% for over 20 years. So we can’t only focus on now, but also on the kind of future building that makes living worthwhile, helping Ukrainian children and families, to create something new, and education central to that kind of future building.

I think the second thing is that we have so many lessons from other settings of refugee education to learn from. Most of the countries in Europe, as here in the US, where Ukrainian refugees are settling now, don’t have experience welcoming large numbers of refugees. 73% of refugees globally live in neighboring host countries, so South Sudanese refugees in Uganda and Kenya, Syrian refugees in Turkey and Lebanon, and these countries have a vast amount of experience creating education for refugee students. Across all of these places, we see that communities are the biggest resource, and so I think that’s so essential that we keep in mind during this current crisis.

And then the third thing is that the welcoming stance as I’ve come to think of it, that’s being exhibited right now for Ukrainians, is unprecedented in Europe. My hope, though, is that it is precedent-setting for the global collective challenge of mass displacement. And so, while the scale of displacement from Ukraine right now is devastating, it’s also not unique globally. There are almost seven million Syrians who are displaced outside their country, four million Venezuelans, two and a half million Afghans, over two million South Sudanese. And I think important in this collective big picture is that we can expect mass displacement to continue with ongoing conflicts and the effects of climate change, and out of this current situation, we really have an opportunity to create new ways of welcoming, and schools are really key to this process of welcoming, in all places.

Jill Anderson: It feels a lot like just the general public and perhaps, maybe you could say, even in education, we are really unaware of just how huge a population refugees consists of. I mean, I was blown away when I read it was something like 29 million, which now, of course, those numbers probably have gone up just in the course of the past week.

Sarah Dryden-Peterson: Yeah, that’s right. As you say, the numbers are constantly changing. And I think that this is an indication also, of the kind of dynamic situation that we need to think about as educators, when thinking about refugee education. And although we see this kind of dynamism, I keep coming back to this idea that we really need to think over the long term, and so there are about 27 to 30 million refugees currently, about half of whom are children, 73% living in neighboring host countries. And as educators, I think it is one of our responsibilities to really support not only refugee young people to access the kind of learning and opportunities that they seek through education, but also students who have not experienced displacement, to really understand what this process of migration, of leaving home when one never intends to leave home and does not want to leave home, what that really means.

And I think this kind of new creation of welcoming is so importantly framed, as educators are so skilled at doing, as a real reciprocal kind of learning process. And so, for Ukrainian refugees newly in Polish schools, that’s a new situation, both for Ukrainian refugees and for Polish students who are going to the same physical space that they’ve been going to for so many years. And so, educators have a huge responsibility to support young people to really think about what it means to build relationships across what might initially be seen as lines of difference across lines of language, and not only this, but also to think about the kinds of causes of conflict that have forced people to flee their homes and the implications of that for their building of a new life in exile, to which education is key.

Jill Anderson: Do you find that the term refugee is often misinterpreted and there’s a need to define it as step one in education? What does it actually mean?

Sarah Dryden-Peterson: That’s a great question. I think that, really, over historical time and across context, we see communities embracing ideas of welcome for those who seek refuge, whether that’s from conflict, from famine, from persecution of all kinds. And this is the real meaning by which I use the word refugee, seeking and locating refuge. And I think as we think about education, there are a few important dimensions. So in international law, the concept of refugee attempts to create legal spaces for refuge, for those who have escaped persecution and need to be somewhere else safe. But we also see that even this legal definition is not always equitably applied and notions of who is deserving of refugee status are often blatantly applied differently across groups so that the access to the rights and protections of refugee status can be different. And this affects young people in terms of their access to schools if access to schools can be determined by refugee status.

As we also think about experiences in education and in schools, I think we want to think about the term refugee and how it can often be applied as a label that can make children and families feel as if they’re placed in some kind of a box, that the process of seeking refuge may be one dimension of their experience, but especially in context of which there are so many globally, whereas, phobia, fear, exclusion are prevalent, this label of refugee, or this box, can be really harmful.

And I think related to that, within schools and classrooms is the imperative to really understand that refugee experiences are not homogenous. Refugee students are not coming from the same experience in home countries. They have not experienced the same processes of flight, of migration. They’re not experiencing the same thing in the schools where they’re at, at any moment, and so this idea of really listening and seeking to understand before using a term as a label are really essential tools for those of us who work in schools with young people, as we seek to be welcoming and understanding of what previous experiences are and what current experiences are in any particular school or community.

Jill Anderson: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Your newest research looks at refugee teachers and students, and you’re saying that they are the future of education.

Sarah Dryden-Peterson: This is actually an idea that really excites me, and in this new work, I think that what is exciting is that I show that refugee teachers and student are remaking the future of education related to two central ideas, one related to uncertainty and the second related to equity. So on this question of uncertainty, I find that refugee teachers and students are extraordinarily strong at learning how to accept uncertainty and how to adapt to change. So for example, [Abrun 00:09:57], who was one of our research participants in a study in Kenya, thought that he would quickly return to Somalia after he fled with his family, but when we interviewed him 21 years later, he was still in Kenya. And this expectation of short-term displacement, the expectation that many Ukrainian refugees are facing today, but the reality of long-term displacement is present for individual refugees like Abrun and for agencies making refugee policy.

But what we see among teachers and students, what I see as most promising is, rather than this kind of unrealistic notion that all will soon return to normal, that they really come to embrace unfamiliar context and develop lifelong capacities to navigate new situations. We see four themes really emerging across the research for what teachers and students do together to create this kind of education that supports navigating uncertainty.

The first is predictability, the kind of safety that’s created through knowing, understanding, and trusting in a particular classroom, for example. The second, which can sometimes seems contradictory, but is so essential, is adaptability, so these kinds of capacities to analyze, to renegotiate, to transform, to meet individual and collective needs. The third, which is really an enabling support, is relationship building. So we see that teaching and learning that’s based in relationships and ideas of interconnectedness that’s made possible when students and teachers really deeply know each other, both inside of schools and outside of schools, can really enable this kind of navigation of uncertainty. And the fourth, which I think threads through all of this is the notion of future building. So in crisis, we have a tendency to focus on the immediate, but from refugee students and teachers, we see this essential element of focusing on the future, right from the moment of crisis, learning how to make what might seem unknowable and impossible, knowable and possible.

And I think this idea of uncertainty, kind of remaking the future of education, is something that we’ve seen prove indispensable to children all over the world during the COVID pandemic. And that will continue to be such an essential element as we think about the future of education in the face of ongoing conflict, pandemics, climate change, and the kind of navigation of daily uncertainty that we want our young people to be able to do.

And then the second way that I see refugee teachers and students remaking the future of education is related to equity, and I find that refugee students and teachers are doing this important equity work as related to important ideas about peace. I think that what the experience of refugee young people in school show is that a kind of one size fits all approach to education has really prioritized the absence of direct violence, so trying to create a kind of holding ground that’s safe for the particular moment, but in the absence of conditions of positive peace, which we think about as not only the absence of violence, but the presence of conditions that allow kids to access equal opportunities. So that requires engagement with structures, engagement with inequities that are based on identity, and with histories, within which educational experiences happen.

And so, we see refugee young people and their teachers really embracing these kinds of interconnections among structures, identity-based inequities and histories, not as tangential to their learning, but really as the foundation of their learning, not being silent in the face of young people’s search to understand the links between their past, which may be filled with conflict, between their presents, in which they’re experiencing xenophobia and fear and lack of access to services, and the futures which they are aspirationally thinking about and uncertain about how they will build.

What we see across these kinds of learnings about uncertainty and equity is this focus on the future, embracing a future of uncertainty, learning to live within it, and envisioning a future that recognizes inequities, but also questions them in the search to create opportunities that would enable economic, social, political participation, which, for most refugees globally, are unavailable given the kinds of legal and asylum structures.

Essential to this also is this kind of modeling of a future of interconnectedness, even when that seems really hard, so refugee teachers and students being in situations where they don’t know if they may be able to continue in education in the school that they’re in tomorrow, if their legal status within the country will be removed, where they don’t know what the situation will be like when they leave the school and enter into a society where they constantly fear for their own safety, but yet continue to try to think within their school experiences about what it means to navigate these inequities, to build a different kind of future.

Jill Anderson: How much do you know or do we know about refugee children and their future in the sense of, I just can imagine if you are continually thinking, I’m going to go back to my home country, and there really is no way to gauge, it could be five years, it could be 20, it could be never, how has that affected children’s ability to have a future? I know there’s a lot of variables to this, depending on where we’re talking about.

Sarah Dryden-Peterson: I think you’ve placed your finger on the essential question in this field. What we see is that in the past, refugee policy and refugee education policy has been really focused on geography. And so, thanking about, will refugees return home, will refugees stay in the place they are, will refugees move onward to a different country through a process of resettlement, for example, to the United States, and all three of these geographic options are really limited. We know that conflicts last for protracted amounts of time and are often cyclical, and so this idea of returning to a home country to build a future can often be delayed for decades or for generations. The idea of staying in the place where one is is often put into question by limitations on legal status for refugees in countries of asylum, or by policies that limit access to schooling that limit the right to work, and the process of geographically   moving to a more distant country where citizenship might be possible, as in resettlement to the US, is only available for 1% of the population.

And so for a field like education that has to think over the long term, we’re not thinking just about what a child learns tomorrow, but what a child learns over a cycle of schooling. We have to think about all of these possible futures and think about the kind of education that really could enable young people to build their futures under any of these scenarios. And I think one of the essential elements that we learn from refugee teachers and students is that they are reconceptualizing the way that education can prepare young people for the future, not in terms of these geographic options that have been so prevalent in policy, but instead, in terms of what kinds of opportunities can be created, often transnationally.

We tend to think of migration as a one point in time movement here, then return later, movement there, but most refugee families are in processes of continual migration of one sort or another with contacts in home countries, with contacts with diaspora in other parts of the world, and creating opportunities for young people to engage in these multiple relationships and forms of learning, to think about where they might build their futures. And of course, this is optimistic in ways that our migration policies do not allow, so thinking about kind of a young person being prepared through their education to live a transnational life is completely stymied by the fact that, often, people are not able to move across borders and not able to access a visa or to access a work permit in a different place.

But I think the kind of optimism we see from refugee teachers and students in the places where they are creating education is that, with the kinds of skills and knowledge and ability to build relationships, that they may be able to create opportunities, even in those places that can be so limiting, while at the same time, of course, each of us need to continue working on less exclusionary migration policies that really limit these opportunities for refugee young people.

Jill Anderson: I am curious if there are things that host countries can do to better support refugee children and their education.

Sarah Dryden-Peterson: In many ways, I think, we see refugee teachers and young people thinking about the kinds of actions that are necessary across different levels, and I think that’s a useful way for all of us to think about the kinds of actions that could be taken to be helpful for refugee young people to create educational futures. I think at the global level, we know that 73% of refugees live in neighboring host countries, and we also know that most of these host countries have a lack of resources to provide education even to national populations. And so, I think this is one area where, as a global community, we need to redouble our efforts to supporting and sharing resources that can allow refugee young people to access education in the places where they are.

And so, I think about, in 2017, when we began doing research in Lebanon with Syrian refugees, 25% of the population in Lebanon was a refugee, and this compares to one 10th of 1% in the US. And as we think about where the responsibility is for providing resources for this education, it’s unfair to imagine that a hosting country that is already short of resources to provide education for its national population should need to support the education of large numbers of refugees who are coming and seeking refuge and seeking education. Even right now, for example, the Polish minister of education has committed to welcoming Ukrainian refugees to Polish schools, but also admits that the resources to do that are staggering, even in a country where access to education is universal. And so, I try to imagine, even for myself, what would happen if, tomorrow, our child’s school grew by one quarter? What would be needed in that kind of context? And how can we, even from far away, think about sharing resources that could make that education more possible?

And some of that really must come in the form of humanitarian aid and development aid. In 2018, the global community signed a Global Compact on Refugees that was meant to create an era of real responsibility sharing, so high-income countries like the United States committing to fund refugee education in neighboring host countries. But many of those commitments to funding continue to go unmet, and I think we need to redouble efforts to ensure that those commitments are met and focus on long-term investments that mirror the long-term nature of education.

And at a very local level, there are so many things that teachers and communities do every day to create quality education for refugees students, and we look at some of the ways that teachers and students are creating those opportunities, helping them find ways to connect histories and identities, even within schools that promote national narratives that are actually quite exclusionary to refugees, to navigate exclusionary power structures in communities and schools, of really thinking about, kind of what might not be understood about the way that institutions work in a new place, and how might I, as an individual who has more knowledge of this education system, share that information, share those strategies for navigating with new families?

And part of that is really about building networks and relationships of belonging among students, among families. One example that really stands out me about how these pieces fit together within schools is from our work with Syrian students in Lebanon. One student shared how her civics teacher tried to motivate refugee students to, as she said, become part of society and to have greater importance, and not just be on the margins. The teacher was really trying to support students to know that the kind of learning they were doing in civics might be able, as the teacher said, to change other people’s perspectives.

But the student was talking about how this seemed really, in some ways, disingenuous because the student didn’t feel like she could be an agent of change in Lebanon. She felt an incredible limitation on her power, and she remembered that the teacher said about the kind of content they were learning in class. In the end, nothing of what’s in this lesson exists. We wish it does. And she said, “It’s true that you’re learning things that don’t exist or that don’t apply to you, but you might be the reason that they exist in the future. You might do things related to politics, and you can change and do the things that you studied about.” And this is where I think we see the real role of educators in supporting refugee students to navigate a curriculum, perhaps, that doesn’t really make any sense given their experiences because they’re learning about exercising rights, that in fact, they don’t have, or they’re learning about a history that feels very distant, or in some ways, very exclusionary to them.

And we see teachers supporting students to build relationships with each other. One of the most poignant comments that a student made to us in this work with Syrian students in Lebanon was just one sentence, and she said, “The teachers didn’t at all make us feel that we were entering a country that isn’t ours.” And this is a very simple idea and sentence, but it’s so hard to actualize, and I think that as individuals, as parents, as educators, we have a responsibility to make sure that no one feels like they are entering a space that can’t belong to them. And how do we support the kinds of relationships that enable both newcomers, like refugees, to feel like there is the possibility of creating belonging? And that requires those who have been there for a long time to also feel the opening of those spaces, to build those kind of interconnections, which can be hard when there is fear, that can be hard when there is a limitation on resources, and schools are often the places where we see these kinds of interactions happening on a daily basis.

Jill Anderson: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Thank you so much, Sarah. There’s just a lot to think about. I appreciate you bringing all these wonderful thoughts.

Sarah Dryden-Peterson: Thanks, Jill. It’s been wonderful to join you today, and I look forward to many more conversations.

Jill Anderson: Sarah Dryden-Peterson is an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and founder and director of Refugee REACH. Her latest book is Right Where We Belong: How Refugee Teachers and Students Are Changing the Future of Education. I’m Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.