How can educational systems help those struggling to start life anew? Lehigh researchers and students hope to find out. Illustration by Tatsuro Kiuchi.
Beaten nearly to death by militia in his home city of Baghdad, Abbas Khalaf left Iraq and traveled to Egypt on a tourist visa in September 2006. On his mission to find and prepare a safe place for his family, Khalaf left behind his wife and three young children and began an odyssey rife with risk and uncertainty.
During his long and complicated journey from Egypt to Israel and finally to the United States, Khalaf was robbed and shot at. He ran, terrified, through a hole in a border fence and into the night, a Muslim man in the dark Israeli desert. He feared for his family's safety. He moved from place to place, living among strangers and dependent upon the decisions of people he'd never met. He learned not one, but two new languages. He waited.
Patience was Khalaf's most important resource. It took years for the United Nations to recognize him as a refugee, and when he finally saw his wife and children again, it was 2012. They joined him in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley with a new language to learn and a new culture to understand.
Khalaf's harrowing tale is one of countless stories of refugees who fled violence and conflict and made their way to host countries now struggling with the influx of people to their borders. As tens of millions of displaced men, women and children struggle to start life anew in countries feeling the strain, it seems there are more questions than answers. Among them: How can educational systems help?
Lehigh researchers and students hope to find out. In June and July 2016, Alexander Wiseman, associate professor of Comparative and International Education, and Lisa Damaschke-Deitrick, professor of practice in Comparative and International Education, accompanied Lehigh students—including a Mountaintop team and Iacocca interns—to the University of Tübingen in southwest Germany to assist with teacher training, course development and efforts to support refugees. Lehigh's partnership with the university also allowed the team to study educational approaches that could be implemented in the United States, including a multilingual, web-based guidebook for new arrivals.
"One of the things we're really interested in is how the existing institutions of education and government facilitate the transition [of refugee] youth and families," says Wiseman.
When refugee youth flee to countries such as the United States and Germany, where schools focus on education- and work-related skills, they often still need the basic humanitarian services provided by UNICEF or other organizations in refugee camps. But the school systems they enter assume that their basic needs have been met and that they're stable enough to focus on schooling or transitioning from school to work.
"This is where much of the work of refugee youth and family transition through empowerment and education can and should be focused," says Wiseman.
Germany, which lies at the heart of the European refugee crisis, is an effective place to start. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Germany had hosted 316,115 refugees by the end of 2015 and received 441,900 asylum claims.
"When the refugee crisis really started in earnest, with Syrians and others from that region going into Europe, that was very interesting to me because we'd done some work with Germany," says Wiseman, whose past research has included teacher licensing and national educational evaluation systems with national agencies in Saudi Arabia. "I've been working with groups that look like the refugees when they were not refugees, and so thinking about how that group displaced into a Western developed system became very interesting."
At Tübingen, Wiseman, Damaschke-Deitrick and the students focused on how to best facilitate the transition of refugee youth into schools and into communities through schools at all levels, including higher education.
"Our work in Germany can potentially influence what we do here at Lehigh to support refugees," says Wiseman.
By German law, all children must enroll in school within six months of arrival in Germany. The educational systems of many host countries place refugees and immigrants in classrooms where acquisition of the host country's official language is the primary goal before students are integrated into regular classrooms. In Germany, this kind of class is called Willkommensklasse, or "welcome class."
"Some of [the refugee students] come from well-educated families, some come from families where education plays no role," says Damaschke-Deitrick. "So this is a challenge for both sides, of course. They're all in one class."
The influx of refugee students in Germany has led to a desperate need for teachers. Retired teachers have returned to the classroom, and a young, new crop of teachers has stepped up. All require training in how to work with refugee children, who face challenges related to language, culture, discrimination and the trauma they may have experienced prior to and during their journey.
Similar to Teach for America in the United States, Teach First Deutschland is a German non-profit organization that recruits college graduates to teach for two years in challenging German schools. Teach First Deutschland's "fellows" receive three months of training prior to entering their classrooms. While at the University of Tübingen, the Lehigh team extended Teach First Deutschland's existing training by providing the fellows' trainers with a three-session workshop on cultural awareness, intercultural communication and how to recognize and deal with trauma and conflict. The trainers learned to instruct teachers in how to be aware of their own identities and identify prejudices and stereotypes. Among several activities, they discussed how personal identity might change based on context, developed a list of potential situations in which students might feel alienated and considered how teachers might be more thoughtful and proactive at preventing marginalization in their classrooms.
"One of the struggles that the Teach First Deutschland folks will be facing is they don't know how to teach German as a second language, they don't know how to work with the range of backgrounds [of their students]," says Wiseman. "So some kids will be coming from other developed countries in Europe and just don't speak German. Some kids are orphans from a war-torn region. And they're all in one class, so how do teachers manage that within the class? How do they provide the basic needs that the truly refugee kids need in the class—social, emotional, medical, all those other kinds of support? We were trying to help with that."
Damaschke-Deitrick says many teachers she met in Germany expressed a desire for such training.
"When I talked to the teachers, there was this big gap between what they expected to do—teach those kids, help them learn German, integrate into German society and learn German culture, all of that—and then the reality" that they can't do all those things, she explains.
With some adjustments, Wiseman says, the training could be replicated for teachers working with refugee students in the United States.
"[In Germany], a lot of it had to do with how you as a teacher might deal with any kind of refugee that comes to you," Wiseman says. "The markers for what they need to be dealing with were primarily issues of identity [and] trauma, so how do you adjust what you're doing in the classroom to match the needs of those kinds of students in particular?"
Refugees arriving in a new country must learn about their new home and figure out how to fit in, and language and culture present significant and sometimes seemingly daunting challenges to these tasks. The University of Tübingen is working to support refugees from a higher education perspective, and Lehigh students provided assistance throughout the summer.
Because enrolling in college puts at risk the financial support refugees receive from the German government, the University of Tübingen has re-designated some courses to make them accessible to refugees, who can enroll as guest students. Among these courses are German-language and English-language courses and a "refugee course" aimed at preparing refugees for regular university study in Germany. Enrollment allows refugees to take higher-level language classes and learn about German history, politics, society and cultural values. Refugee students receive intercultural training and an introduction to the various academic fields they might eventually pursue.
Entry to the refugee course has become highly competitive. Advertising on Facebook alone, the university received more than 100 applications over summer for the approximately 20 available spaces in the course. The Iacocca interns spent the summer working in the office of Christine Rubas, the University of Tübingen faculty member who coordinates the course. They established social media for the course, reviewed applications, scheduled and observed interviews and met with applicants.
"Their willingness to study despite their diaspora absolutely shocked me, and truly inspired us," says Iacocca intern Katie Barr '18.
The Iacocca interns worked with Rubas to generate ideas about how to advise refugees on how to navigate the university. They helped establish a buddy program to match German student mentors with refugees and created Facebook groups and a page that will allow refugee participants to communicate with each other and with German students.
"Inundated with the German language, many refugees who learned English in their home country have forgotten much of it and focused their attention on the German language," says Barr. "To combat this loss, I personally met up with refugees in my spare time to practice English with them."
To further assist with English-language learning, Iacocca interns also hoped to establish a pen-pal program between refugees at Tübingen and Lehigh students.
"So far we have received much enthusiasm from both refugees and Lehigh students about the project and hope that it can launch this fall and remain a part of the University of Tübingen's refugee course in years to come," says Barr.
The Mountaintop team's TREE (Transitions for Refugees through Empowerment and Education) Project sought to provide similar transition support to refugees and other newcomers in the United States, and specifically those in the Lehigh Valley.
When refugees are resettled locally after a thorough vetting process that takes at least 18 months and includes security and health screenings, an agency such as Bethany Christian Services in Allentown, Pa., helps new arrivals find apartments and jobs and gets them enrolled in English-language classes. Children are immediately enrolled in schools. Some, like Abbas Khalaf's children, are integrated into regular classrooms and receive English-language instruction after school. Others are placed in classrooms similar to Germany's Willkommensklasse. Allentown's Newcomer Academy, for example, enrolls non-English-speaking high school students for their first year in the United States. At Newcomer, students study English, mathematics, science and U.S. history. Some, but not all, of the school's students are refugees.
Using the information they gathered in Germany and through their conversations with teachers and staff at Newcomer Academy, the TREE Project team— Katie Morris '18, Rebecca Ely '17 and Aman Kakani '18—created an online guidebook for immigrant and refugee families transitioning to life in Allentown.
The "Newcomers Guide to Allentown" includes videos with subtitles in Arabic and Spanish, as well as contact information and links to websites with key resources. Sections of the book, which can also be downloaded as a PDF, explain how to access adult education, enroll a child in school, use public transportation, and visit area parks, restaurants, libraries, medical centers, pharmacies, dental clinics and banks. The book also includes information on topics including pathways to citizenship, legal aid and religious organizations, as well as cultural guidelines, such as how to be an American student and what happens at a birthday party or at other celebrations.
The team wrote a blog, "Redefining Refugees," in an effort to educate the public about refugees and the issues they face locally and in Germany. They've invited local refugees to submit their own stories as a means of dispelling public misconceptions about the refugee population.
"We need to hear the story of the man I met who traveled through so many countries on his way to Germany that he couldn't even name them all. The man who said that he got in a taxi in Serbia and feared that he would be killed. The man who slept in the streets of Croatia on his way here," Morris writes on the blog. "These are the stories that matter."
The Mountaintop team also hosted an event in late July that brought together teachers, refugees and other members of the local community to share their finished product. Morris and Ely plan to continue their work through the Lehigh chapter of a national, refugee-focused club called No Lost Generation, which is recognized by the U.S. Department of State.
Wiseman and Damaschke-Deitrick are planning a comparison study of how Germany and the United States use education as a means of communicating socio-cultural norms to refugee youth. They seek to identify how policies are implemented within classrooms in order to highlight gaps between theory and practice. Having accepted a large number of refugees, Germany provides a context that might inform the approaches of other developed nations.
Groups like UNICEF and UNESCO have traditionally used schools as a stabilizing factor in conflict situations, says Wiseman. Schools provide routine as well as a means to provide support services to children and their families. In a refugee camp or staging area, the goals are similar—schooling for humanitarian purposes. But in many countries, such as Germany and the United States, Wiseman says, "the purpose of schooling is usually human development in terms of skills and knowledge, which is a very different approach.
"We're interested in looking at how there's a shift in the way that school is used when it's in a conflict zone versus when it's in a developed country and the way that refugees' needs don't really shift along the same lines as what the school has to offer," says Wiseman. "... [We want to] look at the different ways that schooling operates in post-conflict context versus developed-country context for the same populations... How that impacts how refugees basically assimilate or transition to their new community."
Damaschke-Deitrick, a native of Germany who received her doctorate from University of Tübingen, is planning a course on the refugee influx in education for fall 2016 at Lehigh. Students in the course will explore theories concerning migration, resettlement and integration; country and school policies and practices concerning immigration, and questions of citizenship and civic education.
When he first arrived in Pennsylvania, Abbas Khalaf worked nights at a local hospital so he could study English all day. As his English improved, he interviewed for higher-paying positions and was eventually able to purchase a home prior to his family's arrival in 2012. His children have adjusted well and are learning English and thriving in area schools.
In June 2015, Khalaf became a U.S. citizen. Today, he works as a case manager for refugee resettlement with Bethany Christian Services, helping people through what he experienced himself upon his arrival in the United States. He welcomes at the airport refugees from countries such as Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Congo and Myanmar, brings them to their new apartments and answers any questions they might have.
"I tell them that I was a refugee, I came the same way you came," Khalaf explains. "I've been here five years, I bought a house, I have a good job, I learned English. So you have to do all of the steps. That gives them hope when they find somebody successful in front of them."
By training educators and providing social and cultural support, Wiseman, his colleagues and participating students hope to ease the transition and empower others to find the success Khalaf has found in his new home.