A RESEARCH-BASED, SCIENTIFIC APPROACH FOR THE EDUCATIONAL EMPOWERMENT OF PRE-LITERATE REFUGEES
At FORA, we focus on serving refugees who come to the United States whose entire families are illiterate. Because receiving countries pick and choose which refugees they deem desirable, many refugees who are seen as “less desirable” (for example, those without an education or those who are sick) sit and wait, wait, and wait. While they wait, their health worsens, and their children grow up without receiving an education. The bitter irony is that these “passed over” refugees are being overlooked precisely because of the abuse and denial of rights they suffered in their previous homelands.
Undeniably, welcoming illiterate refugees requires detailed preparation, especially because refugees arriving in the United States with extreme deficits in formal education are particularly vulnerable to school failure. Unlike newcomers who have had the benefit of education in their native languages and whose parents attended elementary school, students from illiterate families have to learn an understanding of how school works in addition to literacy and English. One recent study found that children with no or interrupted schooling are “20 percent to 50 percent less likely to meet proficiency standards on fourth-and eighth-grade reading and math tests, and... take over a year longer to test out of English language learner status [than students learning English who do not have interrupted schooling].”
Furthermore, we must consider the students’ parents. Refugee parents, like all other parents, must be empowered to interact with their children’s teachers and to understand what is expected of students after school hours and during the summers (as well as to help their very young children begin to read at home). But refugee parents are hamstrung if they do not speak commonly spoken languages in the United States or read or write in any language. Seventy-seven percent of adult refugees in the United States are characterized as LEP-upon-arrival [“Limited English Proficient,” another way of saying ‘functionally illiterate in English”], 19% more than in the 1980s. The situation does not improve much after arrival. Because refugees so often come to the United States focused, of necessity, on financially supporting their families, they have limited time for learning English or furthering their education. The logistics of obtaining essential educational inputs can be overwhelming. Just five to ten percent of refugees “advance their education once in the United States…. a sign perhaps of the U.S. resettlement program’s heavy emphasis on” rapid employment, as well as limited support for refugee education and language instruction.
For adult LEP refugees, English-as-a-Second Language (“ESL”) classes often are provided only during working hours, too far away from home, and without childcare. Meanwhile, many undereducated refugee children are in the demoralizing and untenable position of either being placed in grades far above their appropriate academic level or far below their age. Their refugee parents are often not able to help to fill the children’s educational gaps or to navigate the bureaucratic maze required to provide basic family stability.
A review of the relevant literature makes two truths clearly apparent. First, refugees who arrive in the United States illiterate in their native language are at a severe disadvantage in learning English. Second, illiterate refugee children will arrive to encounter school systems that are not prepared for them and for which they are not prepared. These realities are reflected in the 2017 Migration Policy Institute (MPI) report, which concludes with a basic challenge – to “expand education and language-learning opportunities. Expanding these opportunities would require improving refugees’ access to mainstream education….”
The research regarding the current challenges regarding mainstreaming refugee children provides an overwhelmingly bleak picture, as follows:
-- “Adjusting to school [is] one of the most difficult experiences for young refugees” and “[s]tudents with interrupted schooling have missed the staged development which occurs in formal schooling, have little age-appropriate experience in literacy, numeracy, use of print and multi-modal texts, limited content knowledge of the world and little experience of problem-based learning.” (1)
-- "Lack of literacy in a first language may impede refugees’ integration, as it indicates a lack of basic educational attainment – a needed foundation for building English language skills." (2)
-- “[T]he most significant variable in the rate of English language acquisition is the amount of formal schooling students have received in their first language.” (3)
-- “In addition to significant deficits in content knowledge and English language proficiency, refugee students without stable previous school having poor organizational skills and time management.” (4)
-- "Refugee students with minimal schooling lack the literacy skills to engage effectively with content in the academic subject areas…. and to scaffold their understanding and learning strategies to process content…. As a result of this and due to their past life experiences – for example, trauma, displacements, refugee camps and disrupted schooling – most teachers of refugee children are having to develop new ways and new classroom strategies to address refugee student needs and expectations.” (5)
Few organizations, institutions or governments are contemplating any “new ways” that illiterate refugee students’ needs and expectations might be met. But ignoring the problem does not make it vanish and does a great disservice to refugees themselves. We predict that the politics of receiving countries will only grow more hostile to desperate refugees from places such as Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, Somalia, the Central African Republic, Bhutan, and Liberia, unless and until we all start figuring out how to effectively welcome illiterate refugees.
FORA is stepping into this gap. This is our expertise, our niche, and we are not afraid to shine a light on this problem and to dare to address it. But this niche must be broadened and amplified if the reasonable hopes of hundreds of thousands of refugees are to be fulfilled. So, we need allies… many allies… in welcoming illiterate refugees and rallying a generation of like-minded individuals, organizations, and politicians to our cause. That is what we are doing right now. As we at FORA rally more and more allies, we are building a community of direct action, and, as the saying goes, actions often speak louder than words. Actions are, of course, coordinated by strategic and tactical plans. Our plans are sound, and our execution is professional. To find out the details, read on!
(1) Maya Cranitch, “Developing Language and Literacy Skills to Support Refugee Students in the transition from Primary to Secondary School,” Australian Journal of Language and Literacy 33, 3. (2010); 257.
(2) Randy Capps et al., “The Integration Outcomes of U.S. Refugees: Successes and Challenges,” Migration Policy Institute, National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy, June 14, 2017, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/integration-outcomes-us-refugees-successes-and-challenges (accessed on July 7, 2020), 2.
(3) Virginia P. Collier, “Acquiring a Second Language for School,” Directions in Language Education 1, 4 (1995), https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED394301 (accessed on July 8, 2020)
(4) 29 Jenny Miller, Jane Mitchell, and Jill Brown, “Interrupted Schooling and the Acquisition of Literacy: Experiences of Sudanese Refugees in Victorian Secondary Schools.” Prospect 20, 2. ResearchGate, August (2005),
(5) Naidoo, Loshini. “Developing Social Inclusion through after-School Homework Tutoring: a Study of African Refugee Students in Greater Western Sydney.” British Journal of Sociology and Education, 30, 3, (2009), Taylor & Francis, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01425690902812547 (accessed July 8, 2020).