Reaching Refugee Students: Regulations, Research and Resources

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The United States has a long tradition of resettling refugees. Since the Refugee Act of 1980, 1.8 million refugees have come to live in the United States. Approximately 35 to 40 percent of these refugees are children (Bridging Refugee Youth and Children’s Services, 2014), many of whom are also students in American public schools.

Additionally, the term immigrant is often used interchangeably with refugee, but in fact, the two have very different federal definitions. Refugees come to the United States specifically to escape persecution or danger (e.g., war, genocide, etc.) in their native country, whereas immigrants may come to the U.S. for work or educational opportunities, but not because they are fearful. In other words:

 An immigrant leaves his homeland to find greener grass. A refugee leaves his homeland because the grass is burning under his feet (Law & Eckes, 2000).

In recent years, refugees have primarily come to the United States from Bhutan, Burma, Iraq, Somalia, Cuba, the Republic of the Congo, Iran, Eritrea, Sudan, and Ethiopia. Michigan actually ranks 7th in the nation for the number of refugees choosing the state for residency. In 2012, the Department of Homeland Security resettled 3,594 into the state (Martin & Yankay, 2013). Much like trends in other parts of the country, refugees are increasingly resettling in medium and small cities as opposed to major metropolitan areas, which can have a major impact on smaller communities and schools, particularly when educators are not accustomed to working with such a diverse student population (Robertson & Breiseth, 2008).

Because refugees often arrive in the United States speaking a language other than English, refugee children are often also identified as English language learners (ELLs). However, it is important to note that not all ELLs are refugees and not all refugees are ELLs. For example, a refugee student may be classified as an ELL for several years upon arrival to the United States, exiting ELL status after demonstrating English proficiency. However, this student will always remain a refugee.

Refugee students may have suffered from a variety of traumas outside of the United States related to:

  • Basic needs not being met
  • Lack of medical care
  • Separation from family
  • Threats of violence
  • Witnessing violence
  • Interrupted schooling

The promise of a new life in the U.S. does not mean that there will not be struggles here for children as well. Once students arrive to the U.S. they may continue to experience:

  • Continued separation from family
  • Uncertainty of the whereabouts of family members or friends
  • Racial/ethnic discrimination
  • Poverty
  • Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, other anxiety disorders
  • Bereavement process

These experiences and conditions often pose challenges for refugee students, including:

1) Mental Health Concerns
These conditions may translate into mental and emotional health issues, which can complicate content and language learning. Poor behavior in the classroom and being withdrawn can sometimes be indicators of something more going on behind the scenes for the student. Schools should also keep in mind that just because students do not actively seek assistance that they are not struggling with issues and that the experiences of one student are not the experiences of all refugee students (Stewart, 2011). To further compound the issue of assistance seeking, for many cultures discussion of their mental health has deep stigmas.

2) Academic Challenges Due to Limited Formal Education
Many refugees arrive in the United States with in-depth knowledge on survival and problem-solving skills, but limited exposure to academic content. This is often because they are students with interrupted formal education (SIFEs) either because they have had to move around to avoid persecution or because the educational infrastructure does not exist in refugee camps. It is important to note that SIFEs should not automatically be referred to special education. In all likelihood, what they need is the opportunity to learn academic content and encouragement and support from their teachers and fellow students.

3) Difficulty Connecting with Parents
Educators may find it very difficult to engage refugee parents in their children’s education. There may be language and cultural barriers that make connecting more challenging. For example, it may be the case that refugee parents are not familiar with the American norm that parents assist in educating their children. One of the best ways to facilitate building connections with refugee parents is to have a bilingual community member who can help bridge this gap between school staff and parents.


So, what can you do to help your refugee students?

Perhaps some of the best resources are refugee students themselves. Here are a few tips for educators from refugee students:

  • Don’t let students be rude to each other or teachers
  • Be like a family
  • Improve communication and help with acquiring English
  • Support schoolwork by differentiating
  • Listen, respect, and show that you care
  • Don’t give up on the students (Stewart, 2011)

Here are a number of other resources that educators can refer to depending on their students’ specific areas of need.

Supporting Educators’ General Understanding of Refugee Students:

  • The ¡Colorín Colorado! website offers a comprehensive list of online resources on refugee students.
  • For a short mini-documentary on the experiences of educators who were met with a sudden influx of refugee students, check out this video!
  • To better understand the limited and interrupted schooling students may have experienced in their home countries, take a look at this video from the United Nations.
  • The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees also provides a downloadable app of multiple scenarios allowing educators to learn more about the refugee experience. Each of the three stories is based on “the real-life experiences of millions of refugees fleeing war or persecution. The events and outcome of each story depend on the decisions that the player makes, resulting in a potentially different experience every time.”

Supporting Schools as they Welcome Refugee Students:

Supporting the Mental Health of Refugee Students:

Supporting Students with Interrupted Formal Education (SIFEs):

Supporting Positive and Productive Connections with Refugee Parents

We hope these resources can help provide Michigan educators with tools that will help them provide refugee students with a sense of stability, feelings of safety, and meaningful support that will allow students to demonstrate academic and social success. Feel free to reach out to us with questions.

Until the next issue,

Madeline Mavrogordato & Jennifer Paul



Hunter, J. & Howley, C. (1990). Undocumented children in the schools: Successful strategies and policies. Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. Retrieved on April 11, 2014 from

Law, B. & Eckes, M. (2000). More than just surviving handbook: ESL for every classroom teacher. Winnipeg, Canada: Portage & Main Press.

Martin, D. & Yankay, J. (2013, April). Refugees and asylees: 2012. Annual Flow Report Washington DC: Department of Homeland Security. Retrieved on April 10, 2014 from

Robertson, K. & Breiseth, L. (2008). How to support refugee students in the ELL classroom. Retrieved from

Stewart, J. (2011). Supporting refugee children: Strategies for educators. Ontario, Canada: University of Toronto Press.