As a child I was affected by multiple wars in Uganda, my country of origin. School interruptions and displacement from my home were the norm. I lost my childhood friendships, family members, home, school, community and familiar language. And I lost my social capital, which was a critical support to my social emotional wellbeing.

Students fleeing from war and arriving in our classrooms may experience losses similar to mine. Once in Canada, loneliness, isolation, language deficits, different cultural practices, and in some cases different skin colors may isolate refugee youth and thus jeopardize their sense of belonging in their new country.

My doctoral thesis, “Exploring the sense of belonging of war-affected refugee youth”, investigated the sense of belonging of war-affected refugee youth during pre-migration and post-migration periods, as well as the factors that may enhance or hinder their sense of belonging. I use the term “refugee” cautiously as it may evoke negative connotations. The term is a label to describe a circumstance or situation under which people relocate. What follows is an overview of some key areas discussed in my thesis. I hope that sharing the work will lead to greater awareness and discussion among school leaders as we navigate the realities faced by our students.

Loss and Uprooting

The effects of war can have a negative effect on children’s developing security and emerging personality (Jensen, 1992, p. 986). Children living in conflict zones often experience major disruptions to their daily living activities. Their schools close down, recreational activities end, they are no longer safe playing in their neighbourhoods with friends, and their home life often is altered due to a lack of shelter or having to move to another area (Lasser & Adams, 2007). Children not living in or near direct combat zones often are exposed to war through television and overhearing adult conversations. Whether the child has suffered from direct or indirect exposure, the psychological effects of exposure to war can be significant (Lasser & Adams, (2007).

The psychological experiences of adolescent refugees are ones of loss and uprooting. They experience individual losses of family, home, school, town, friends, relatives, and former identity; and collective losses such as country, community, culture, and language (Bromley, 1988; Jones, 1998). Eisenbruch (1990) uses the term cultural bereavement to describe these losses. However, the massive losses suffered by refugees have no prescribed rituals for healing and little social support. Society does not easily acknowledge the grief of a person who has lost everything they hold dear in their former country.

In addition, refugee families may be so busy “adjusting” during resettlement that they cannot give themselves permission to grieve (Fantino & Colak, 2001). Unfortunately, the host society seldom recognizes the grieving process in refugee children. It may be necessary for refugee youth to have proper closure to their past losses in order to create new ties and relationships.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

In cases where war-affected refugee youth are suspected to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), schools should consult school psychologists for support. In addition, it is helpful for all educators to get Trauma-Informed Training, which can be accessed through ‘New Directions’ agency. The participants in my research accessed the following agencies for support: The Needs Centre, Welcome Place, New Directions and the Manitoba Adolescent Treatment Centre (MATC). One of the participants noted that it was helpful to have MATC on board to work with war-affected students, as “MATC had a psychological component with trained psychologists to deal with war trauma.” Additional supports mentioned by the participants were provided by churches and associations where refugee students received assistance from community volunteers.

As they resettle in their new country, children often lose some of the support of their parents, grandparents, and communities. These support people are often busy; preoccupied with economic survival, working more than one job, and going to school.

By moving to one or more places before resettling in Canada, youth may have developed multiple self-images that may lead to identity confusion. Therefore, the challenge facing these youth is to blend their new life experiences in their host country with their past life experiences, and to mold them into a unified self-image that will be respected and found meaningful in their new community. Keeping this in mind, educators may need to be aware of the possibility of identity confusion among war-affected refugee youth to assist them in forming a firm identity that may successfully lead them to the next developmental stage of adulthood.

A Sense of Belonging

Belonging is the human need to be an accepted member of a group, (Fiske, 2004). Whether it is family, friends, co-workers or a sports team, humans have an inherent desire to belong and be an important part of something greater than themselves. A sense of belonging is the experience of personal involvement in a system or environment whereby a person feels integral to that system or environment (Hagerty, Lynch-Sauer, Patusky, Bouwsema, & Collier, 1966). Friendships among students in schools is a critical part of their wellbeing and thus their sense of belonging.

The need to belong and be part of their new community may override one’s need to maintain unique cultural practices that may make them appear “different” and isolated. Youth new to Canada are inevitably confronted with the values of the majority society and may feel “left out.” By accepting the values of the host society, they may feel disloyal to their parents. At home, they are also confronted with the values of their parents, values which may be held by a small minority. This dilemma may lead some youth to pursue their cultural identity and a sense of belonging by joining already existing gangs.

The Major Task for Educators

The major task for educators is to take time to listen to the views, feelings and sentiments of war-affected refugee youth, thus creating a safe space where they can talk and express themselves freely. However, this is not an easy task as it may depend on individual personalities and temperaments as well as the nature of their war experiences.

Listening to Students’ Life Stories

Listening to students’ life stories is helpful for them as it may provide healing and closure for some. Disregarding students’ perspectives may result in [inefficient] interventions that do not address students’ real problems or concerns and may even pose a threat to their self-esteem and self-efficacy (Boyden, 2003). Children must be encouraged to provide real insight into their feelings and experiences. If children are to be helped to overcome highly stressful experiences, their views and perspectives need to be treated as a source of learning and strength, not weakness. It is important for curricula and teaching practices to operate within a broad range of accepted social values while being attuned to students’ identities and cultures (Woods, 1990).

Other Strategies that Help

Other strategies that may support and foster a sense of belonging for refugee youth include:

a) encouraging students to share their culture through food, clothing, games, songs, dances, and languages,
b) having students work on projects using their first languages,
c) utilizing students’ expertise in their areas of strengths such as music, sports, or math,
d) equal treatment,
e) acknowledging their cultures,
f) school entry preparation,
g) appropriate grade level placement,
h) preparation for school rules, expectations and routines,
i) genuine care,
j) preparation for community routines and rituals including shopping and transportation and
k) creating and encouraging interactions between refugee and Canadian-born students.

School routines such as gym expectations and gym game rules, cafeteria expectations, as well as general school expectations and rules must be explained. Use of storybooks reflective of cultures of newcomer youth was mentioned by the participants in my research as a way to bring pride to these youth. Newcomer youth may bring books familiar to them and should be encouraged to share them.

Slowing down in delivering lessons and assignments will support newcomer students to have a better understanding of what is being taught. Instead of having students work on several assignments a year, students may focus on fewer projects that may require integrated concepts and skills including math, science, or social studies. The book, ‘Learning in Depth,’ by Egan (2010) outlines ideas on how to integrate topics and teach them for long periods of time.

Encouraging and including newcomer youth in school social and political committees like social justice, student council and other student groups may reinforce feelings of being valued and make them feel like contributing members of their school community. Involving students in Canadian life skills experiences through teaching them about picnics, camping, fishing, swimming, and participating in these activities as part of school programing, may also be beneficial to newcomer students.
Resettlement in a new country not only offers a safe haven for building a stable life and a hopeful future, but also the opportunity to belong. War-affected refugee youth enter Canada with high expectations, dreams, and potential to become contributing individuals in their new communities.

The adversity experienced by refugee youth creates a level of resilience that can be relied on and utilized to overcome many life challenges, which we all hope will lead these students to become valued citizens in their new communities.

– Originally published in the Spring 2023 issue of the MB Teacher

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