After witnessing their government fall to the Taliban in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal, being torn away suddenly from their homeland, families and friends, and then escaping—only to spend several weeks in limbo on American military bases—thousands of young Afghan evacuees are bracing for their first days of class.
For these students, the start of school will likely bring more than the typical jitters. Some will be nervous about what American students and teachers are like, while also worrying about the fates of their former classmates who did not make it out. Many will be eager to hit the books but also overwhelmed by language barriers and meeting basic needs in the face of an under-resourced resettlement process.
The U.S. is currently resettling more than 55,000 Afghans, with an additional 125,000 refugees from around the world expected to arrive by the end of next year. Because a large proportion of newcomers are school-aged children, American schools will be essential in welcoming these newcomers, as we have learned as public health researchers studying the adjustment and wellbeing of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa.
With schools across the country preparing for these new arrivals amid continued fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, we share key insights we have learned from speaking with hundreds of high school students and family members, school faculty and staff, district leaders, and civil society representatives over the past four years.
Although our participants in Detroit; Chicago; Harrisonburg, Va.; and Austin, Texas, were from Arab-majority countries such as Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon—countries with vastly different historical, cultural and sociopolitical contexts from Afghanistan—what we have learned may be useful to educators eager to welcome newcomers fleeing the fallout of U.S. wars overseas.
Refugees, immigrants, Afghans, Pashtuns, Muslims, English language learners. It can be tempting to categorize people under neat labels, and some students may indeed use these labels to describe themselves. Of course, knowing that a student identifies as Muslim may help a school to make its practices more welcoming—for instance, by offering halal meat at the cafeteria, as one Austin school we visited had done. There is a difference, however, between adjusting to students’ preferences and making assumptions based on their perceived identities.
Labels can easily become essentializing, with educators assuming that all members of a group have the same needs, desires, aptitudes and behaviors. During an interview in Michigan, for example, one teacher blamed boys’ tendency to reject personalized support on their “Arabic mindset,” in which receiving such help would supposedly bruise their egos. Stereotypes like this effectively blind educators to the complex individuals standing before them and can lead to ineffective or even harmful teaching practices.
It is also important to learn—and to teach—the distinctions between different categories with which newcomers identify. Afghans, for instance, are not Arabs. Not all Afghans are refugees, and not all refugees think of themselves as such. Making these distinctions is not about semantics so much as it is about communicating respect.
First Impressions Count
The first day of school is notoriously nerve-wracking, even for students who have not recently fled a war zone and arrived mid-semester in a foreign country where they do not speak the language. Many newcomers are overwhelmed by just how different everything is about their new school. As Leisha, a 17-year-old Lebanese girl in Michigan (whose name has been changed), told us, between the “language, new environment, new habits, new everything … it’s like everything is new” to those who are just arriving in the U.S. and starting school.
To ease this challenging transition, the schools that we studied took different orientation approaches, ranging from small-group meetings with enrollment interviews to comprehensive, multi-day programs. Structured orientations allow schools to learn about their new students and potentially develop tailored supports for them. These sessions also teach students about the school layout, rules and offerings and allow school staff to connect students to other services, such as mental health and psychosocial support.
In several schools, teachers encouraged students like Leisha, who had already been in the country for some time, to help welcome newcomers by speaking to them in their native language and introducing them to her friends.
A common challenge for schools enrolling newcomers is processing previous transcripts, conducting academic assessments and placing students in the appropriate grade.
While schools usually have a protocol—and even a dedicated team, as is the case at Harrisonburg’s Welcome Center—to guide this process, research participants often expressed confusion and even resentment about being placed in a lower grade than they had expected.
Efforts to make this process more transparent and to communicate the reason behind grade placement in an accessible manner would likely go a long way toward improving student confidence and contentment. And such efforts would likely help to prevent students from feeling misunderstood, insulted or demeaned.
Culturally Responsive SEL
Social and emotional learning (SEL) initiatives present invaluable opportunities for promoting student and school adjustment. By cultivating social- and self-awareness and healthy relationships, SEL can help avert some of the more painful stressors of adjustment, such as bullying.
SEL, and complementary or overlapping approaches such as restorative practices and trauma-informed care, are especially promising when they center equity and meaningfully address power differentials and the intersecting influences of race, ethnicity, gender, class and religion, among other social identities.
In some cases, teachers in our study actively reflected on what they took for granted as white, U.S.-born educators and attempted to expand their educational toolkits.
“Maybe I’m not really teaching as well as I thought I was,” one teacher in Michigan remembered thinking, adding, “Because sometimes I’ll give [my students] a reference, and I’ll check myself, because as it’s coming out of my mouth, I’m like, ‘No. They have no frame of reference [for this].’”
Self-reflections such as this drove teachers to learn more about their students, whether by reading about Iraqi history beyond the Gulf Wars, learning Arabic vocabulary or practicing to pronounce their students’ names properly.
Students generally appreciated these relatively small welcoming gestures. As a 15-year-old sophomore in Austin told us, his teacher’s efforts to learn about Iraq—his home country—communicated that “they acknowledge me,” which made him “feel kinda special.”
Such teachers sometimes also granted accommodations, such as homework extensions during Ramadan, but were careful not to make students feel singled out or belittled.
This balance between adjustment and equal treatment stood out against other instances of teachers exhorting their students to “Speak English!” or using students as teaching examples.
A 17-year-old Iraqi senior, for instance, remembered a substitute teacher pointing to her as an example of assimilation because she had supposedly stopped wearing a hijab after arriving in the United States.
“I found it kinda rude,” she recalled, “because you can’t just, like, assume that.”
Evidently offended, she reproached the teacher, making it clear that she had never worn a hijab—not during her childhood in Iraq, nor during her displacement in Syria and Turkey. Not only had this teacher been factually wrong, but he had also reduced her to a stand-in for his cultural stereotype, effectively separating her from the rest of her classmates.
Systems Are Greater Than the Sum of Individuals
Of course, educators cannot do everything. With high student-to-teacher ratios, rigid curricula, standardized tests and only so many hours in the day—not to mention the ongoing pandemic response improvisation—educators are already overextended. While high-quality professional development can be useful, it is not a panacea. School systems have many tools at their disposal to support newcomers and the educators serving them.
Austin, for example, has built an impressive mental health system within its public schools, which provides preventive and specialized supports. Teachers who are often on the front line of detecting psychological needs can now refer students to appropriate care.
Schools like Harrisonburg Public High School in Virginia, meanwhile, offer newcomer programs that not only include English as a second language (ESL) classes, but also an extended cross-cultural orientation and training in study skills.
Several schools have hired staff and faculty from the community of adult newcomers. Liaisons from Iraq or Syria help to mediate relationships between schools and families, while also serving as culturally responsive mentors. To enhance engagement with families, liaisons and other school staff have not only enabled participation in school and community activities, but also visited parents at home and at work, and even led sessions to support caregiver SEL and mental health. These are only a couple of examples, but they speak to the power of schools and districts to welcome through culturally responsive innovation.
We need more research to document and evaluate what works best for schools in supporting newcomers and how these approaches should be adapted for the students and families arriving from Afghanistan in the coming months. But, for now, we hope that those eager to offer a warm welcome may draw inspiration from the newcomers, educators and service providers we have learned from over the past four years.