Several groups of refugees have recently resettled in the U.S. after having waited for years in refugee camps for resettlement: the Somali Bantu, the Hmong, and the Liberians. The majority of these new arrivals are originally from rural areas, are more likely to be pre-literate, and many of these children and youth may have had limited or no access to formal schooling. Due to these gaps in education and differences in background, these refugees often undergo an extensive process of adjustment to the school setting here in the U.S. At the same time, educators and other service providers are looking for resources in order to better understand and to assist these students and their families. This month’s Spotlight on education – a collaboration between BRYCS and the Spring Institute – gives an overview of some of the issues and questions raised as we serve these newest arrivals and provides resources that can help address these concerns.

Typically, refugee students and their families place great importance on education, and these newer arrivals are no exception. Refugee parents often make great sacrifices so that their children can succeed in school, and both parents and children have demonstrated tremendous strength and resourcefulness by making the journey here. For example, Hmong students whose families arrived in the earlier wave of refugees have tended to do well overall in school – a study published by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute notes that Asian students (90% of whom were Hmong) had scores above national norms and are graduating at rates equal to or higher than other students. However, refugee students also face great challenges, especially when they first arrive, including mastering a new environment, a different school system, and often, a new language; learning culturally-appropriate behaviors; placement at a level that may be too difficult or not challenging enough; recovery from emotional trauma and loss; peer pressure and discrimination; and pressures from parents undergoing their own adjustment. See BRYCS’ past spotlight on education for more information on these strengths and challenges.

The BRYCS Clearinghouse continues to acquire resources that address educational issues for refugee children and their families. The resources not only describe and examine problems, but many offer practical solutions. For example, an article in ESL Magazine notes the innovative approaches of “collaborative inclusion and content-area instruction” as aiding the educational experience of Hmong students. The book, Building Bridges: Multilingual Resources for Children, explores the “potential of using multilingual resources for building bridges between monolinguals and bilinguals, between home and school.”

Parental involvement in a child’s education can improve success in school. A Guide to Your Children’s School: A Parent Handbook describes the school system in the United States. It is available in seven languages in addition to English. It can be downloaded free from the Web site listed in the BRYCS Clearinghouse. The BRYCS Clearinghouse can also lead you to additional practical resources like the Helping Your Child Succeed series from the U.S. Department of Education, the resources guides for professionals working with immigrant populations from the School of the 21st Century program at Yale University, and presentations from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement’s Achievement and Challenge Proceedings 2004 National Refugee Program Consultation.

Funding Sources for Educational Programs:

The Refugee Children School Impact Grants Program, administered by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), provides for some of the costs of educating refugee children incurred by local school districts in which significant numbers of refugee children reside. State Departments of Education submit applications requesting funds to cover costs to local school districts that are impacted by significant numbers of refugee children. States are encouraged to consult with local refugee service organizations to ensure coordination and avoid duplication. School districts use the grants to fund activities that will lead to the effective integration and education of refugee children. For instance, grants have been used to fund English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction, after-school and summer programs, tutoring, parental outreach programs, salaries for teachers, aids and counselors as well as interpreter services.

The 21st Century Community Learning Centers program falls under the No Child Left Behind Act. It expands academic enrichment opportunities through after school programs for students and families. Congress has appropriated $991.07 million for after school programs in Fiscal Year (FY) 2005. the program focuses on children attending low-performing schools by offering tutorial services and academic enrichment activities in reading and math. In addition, programs provide youth development activities, drug and violence prevention programs, technology education programs, art, music and recreation programs, counseling and character education to enhance the academic component of the program.

 “Hear what I’m not saying”

I don’t always want to do the things I do
But how else can I make you see
That I’m still here and I have feelings, too

-used with the permission of Refugee Works

This excerpt from a poem, written by a Hmong student in the Fresno (California) Unified School District, expresses a level of self awareness that many refugee children do not have. It also identifies a core issue for everyone working with refugee youth. As service providers, we often focus on our own issues: how to have students line up, how to have students sit down, how to have students “fit in”, how to have students pass tests, how to have students make up for lost time so that they can be in classes with students their age. We, perhaps, forget or become impatient with the fact that these young people have few opportunities or lack the language ability to express to school personnel what they are feeling and, particularly, what they are feeling about school.

It is hard enough for an adult who has hoped and prayed to come to the United States to cope with their culture shock. It is even more difficult for children who probably did not participate in the decision-making process for the family and who lack the language skills and maturity to express their fears and frustrations.


The challenge for these refugee children is that now they are here and they must attend school. Even in situations with veteran teachers of refugee students, some of the new refugee students present challenges that are very different from the students who have come before them. The new students’ attempts to be heard and seen and to express their feelings can make life difficult for the teacher as well as the school. Most of us will never find ourselves living in an environment where we do not understand the culture or know the rules. However, from time to time it might be helpful to think about how we would cope if we were in an environment where everything was unfamiliar and we lacked the language capacity to make ourselves understood in even the most basic of situations. What would we need to learn? Who would assist us in finding our way?


We know that many of the students who today seem difficult to serve will make it just fine in the long run. However, we also know from experience that youth who feel alienated or disenfranchised turn to gangs, suicide and other self-destructive behaviors so we need to do all we can to equip these students by helping them regain their voices so they can express their feelings in constructive and healthy ways.

Schools need to begin by examining their own culture. What are the implicit rules that govern school operations? How did the other students learn these rules? How can the rules be taught to the students who do not know them? What are the rules on the playground? How does one appropriately defend oneself without adequate language skills? How can students be taught what behavior is appropriate and what is not? Who are allies for the teacher? How can schools with refugee children meet the No Child Left Behind Act requirements? How can teachers be supported so that their classrooms contribute to the forward progress of every student? How long does it take to learn English? How can the background of refugee students be shared so that they can be appreciated and encouraged in ways that honor and encourage their native culture and respect their efforts to learn new ways of behaving?

There are no easy answers and each school and school system will have to find their own most appropriate responses. Fortunately, there are resources available that can help.


School administrators and educators of refugee children and youth can access more information through the following resources.

From the Spring Institute:
The Spring Institute has worked with Dr. Dina Birman of the University of Illinois, Chicago to produce materials that will be useful to classroom teachers who teach refugee children. Two such publications available through the Institute are Mental Health of Refugee Children: A Guide for the ESL Teacher and Somali Youth Report, Excerpts from the Report Prepared for The Maryland Office for New Americans, Maryland Department of Human Resources. Both are available through The Spring Institute (Web Site:, E-mail, phone 303-863-0188, fax 303-863-0178).

Other resources:

Additional resources found in the BRYCS Clearinghouse that relate directly to this month’s spotlight:

BRYCS would like to thank Burna Dunn of The Spring Institute who authored this spotlight. The Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning, founded in 1979, is a nonprofit training and consulting corporation dedicated to demonstrating that national, cultural, linguistic and ethnic differences are assets that foster understanding and cooperation. The Institute has been designated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement as their technical assistance provider in the area of English Language Training.