Syrian refugee children’s perspectives on integration

Since 2011, the armed conflict in Syria has displaced almost 12 million people – over half of whom are children, according to the UNHCR. In fact, more than 20,000 Syrian refugees in Canada are under the age of 18. Given how the crisis has affected their education, supporting the integration of Syrian children and youth into schools and Canadian culture is an important focus for educational and community services. However, there are concerns about the attention and support these children receive, and the potential for them to slip through the cracks.

Drs. Yan Guo, Shibao Guo, and WSE post-doctoral scholar1 Srabani Maitra are currently studying the initial integration experiences of Syrian refugee children (ages 10-14) in schools. The researchers were specifically interested in the perspectives of children, as they have received less attention overall than adults in research on settlement and integration of refugees. By having the children share their own experiences and ideas, the researchers hope to build a clearer picture of their everyday lives in schools, and to challenge stereotypes and assumptions.

The team has interviewed 2 sets of focus groups, with 6 Syrian refugee children in each group. By working with older students, these children have already had some experience in schools in Syria, as well as the transition into a new culture and education system. They have also held 2 sets of focus groups with 6 Syrian refugee parents, in order to gain additional insights into the experiences of the children.

Social barriers

The emerging results of the study have highlighted three main social barriers to school integration:

  • Feelings of isolation and separation – The students spoke to the need for more support in the classroom and in connecting with other students. They are looking specifically to teachers for support in facilitating this connection. The children report feeling as though they did not belong, which they thought might be connected to being Syrian; they also reported that being refugees and not speaking English were concerns in their integration. Some parents expressed concerns about their children experiencing emotional troubles, or a desire to return to Syria.
  • Difficulties making friends – although social connection is a key factor in integration, the students reported that they are concerned that, by being new, they do not have many friends. While some made friends with other Arabic speakers in their specialized and English language classrooms, many wanted to connect with other Canadian children. The students wanted opportunities to interact in regular classrooms with other children.
  • Bullying and racism – students reported being bullied in school, or while travelling to and from school. Some students recalled being harassed while trying to pray, as the school had not made provisions for a private space. The students said that they were told they were not allowed to pray, and that they should ‘go back to their own country.’
    • In addition to other students, the children also discussed concerns with teachers treating them unfairly; they thought this too was connected to being Syrian and a refugee. Particularly in handling concerns about bullying, some students felt that teachers did not treat the issue as seriously as they should – rather, they would dismiss it by saying that the students did not mean it, or that they should try to get along.
Schools as sites for integration

Schools can serve as an important site for stability, support, and for building a sense of routine and belonging. Schools also play a role in language acquisition, social support, and in addressing trauma and socio-emotional needs. These are essential for laying the foundation for a healthy future. This study indicates that while many teachers are providing encouragement and assistance, there is a need to help teachers and students to address these issues, provide support, and better foster belonging in the school.

The researchers are planning two further focus groups, 1 with children, and 1 with teachers, school board personnel, and representatives from community organizations. The team hopes to encompass the critical dimensions of school integration for Syrian refugee children, as seen from their perspective, and to provide educators and service providers with new directions for facilitating success through coordinated programming.

*This work was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC)*

See more from Dr. Yan Guo on her profile

See more from Dr. Shibao Guo on his profile

1 We would like to congratulate Dr. Srabani Maitra on her faculty position with the University of Glasgow!