How do you imagine that escaping from home, missing out on education and having to start over in a strange country would influence a refugee child’s future chances of doing well in school? Scanning through the research in the fields of education, cognitive and social development, and child migration, you might come to a conclusion that these children are doomed to fail. Fortunately, the relationship between forced migration and educational outcomes is not as simple as that.
Recently, I interviewed 45 refugee students who were all nominated by their teachers as being successful in school in Finland and Australia. Students told me about their school experiences in a form of school path pictures and narratives. Many of the pictures were painted in dark colours; dangerous sea crossings, dead families, fear, neglect, and abuse. Assyrian Rebqah told me about her family being torn apart, her schooling being interrupted and her working as a cleaner at the age of eight or nine. Kumara from Sri Lanka told me about his long stay in different Australian offshore detention camps, where too few teachers tried to teach too many students, under the burning sun and without suitable material. Iraqi Aarif, like the majority of the children, recalled the pain of being hit by teachers.
Asking Kumara, Rebqah and Aarif whether their past experiences could explain their current school success might sound like a stretch; what good could come out of such hardships? Well, it was less of a stretch than I expected. The answers painted clear and colourful pictures of the resourcefulness and elasticity of these children as they coped to live and learn, and lived and learned to cope. Kumara learned that he loves to study, and that he must orchestrate his own possibilities to do so despite poor resources. Rebqah learned that cleaning is not what she wants to do, she is much happier in school. Aarif learned he wants to end violence in Iraq, and that he might start from schools. Today, these are all happy, engaged and successful students with big plans.
These children are not “miraculous exceptions”, nor are their stories uncommon. Stories such as these are just too often submerged by deficit discourses that position the children as victims of barriers due to their background, and schools as remedial places. This is understandable as many traditional research methods fail to acknowledge the child’s own view, and consequently, focus on the trauma and the trouble. This, in turn, strengthens the well-meaning but counterproductive deficit discourse. Furthermore, because of this, the ears of adults are not tuned to hear what children want to share.
Tuning our ears towards more positive frequencies is necessary if we wish to hear a full, stereophonic story of ordinary school life, which the refugee children want to share. Success that makes sense in the situation of a refugee child is more than measurable academic excellence. Success is built on safety and belonging, and maintained by good educational practices, genuinely interested teachers and caring friends. Importantly, refugee children want to belong in and contribute to their education, not to be fixed by it. Like all children, they want an opportunity to live and learn, not only cope.