In February, 25 refugee youth gathered in Washington, DC to identify and discuss the biggest barriers they face adjusting to life in America. The third barrier identified was education.  These barriers, causes, impacts, and solutions all came from the refugee youth themselves. Please take a moment to better understand the challenges young refugees face and what you can do to help.


Education is essential for the success of refugee youth, but when they arrive in a new country they feel like they are starting their education over again. Many refugees struggle with the American education system upon arrival.


One reason refugees struggle with the American education system is that teachers and school personnel have a limited understanding of the unique needs of refugees. There are no educational plans developed to address and deal specifically with refugee students. Another major cause is the inherent differences in the education systems overseas. Refugees are not familiar with or prepared for standardized testing. It is also difficult to obtain official school records, which can interfere with enrollment and grade placement. Sometimes refugees do not have access to education for years in the camp and are placed in a grade level that does not correspond to their learning level.  Additionally, language barriers limit how much a student can learn, their educational opportunities and progress.


Struggling with the American education system affects refugees in many ways. Some refugees do poorly and get bad grades for the first few years. Because they struggle to succeed and do well in school, they have less job opportunities and miss out on other opportunities, such as college, scholarships, and internships. This makes it difficult to support their families. Doing poorly in school can make refugees feel discouraged, frustrated, depressed, hopeless, and lose interest in their studies. This lack of interest can lead them to drop out or become involved in gangs, drugs, and other risky behaviors. Refugees struggling with their education tend to not graduate on time and aren’t likely to participate in school activities.


Schools can work to increase communication between schools (i.e. middle school and elementary school) so the new school can be made aware of a student’s unique needs. They can translate school materials and educate teachers on the needs of refugees, offer refugee specific guidance counseling, and summer orientation sessions to help with the transition. They can also increase after-school programming and tutoring, as well as parent involvement initiatives.

Organizations that work in refugee camps can make sure to educate youth and parents about the American school system before they arrive.

Refugee resettlement agencies can offer a support system for newcomer families, educating them on the American school system and the importance of parent involvement. They can also educate parents on financial resources, such as scholarships for private high school and college.

There needs to be a paradigm shift from assisting refugees to quickly become self-sufficient to assisting refugees to meet and discover their full potential.  A cultural understanding when interpreting/evaluating transcripts is needed to institute better testing that will result in more accurate and appropriate placement. Another potential solution is to develop educational programming for those over 18 years of age that includes GED certification.

Click here to access the full report on integration barriers.