Losing Identity During the Refugee Crisis

The difference between assimilation and integration in the classroom

Ele Cundi, 5, a Syrian refugee, poses as she sits with friends in kindergarten at Midyat refugee camp in Turkey (Umit Bektas / Reuters)

Rachel McCormack arrived in Europe last November to research international schools catering to English-speaking students, but her plans were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the continent’s refugee crisis. Now, she’s spearheading a campaign to deliver Arabic-language books to refugee shelters in the Netherlands.

McCormack, a professor of literacy education at Rhode Island’s Roger Williams University, says the crisis felt more real as she watched the European news. “All I was seeing were images of Syrian families walking across Europe, and wondering what’s going to happen to them,” she says. “I thought what I should really be looking at is educating myself more about what’s being done to assist them.”

She paired up with an historian of Syrian descent who’s based in Italy but was born in the Netherlands, and who is writing a book about Syria. Together they drove for 14 hours, visiting several shelters by the German-Dutch border and talking with many of the Syrian families living there.

McCormack was particularly interested in the children, and how they would adapt in their new home. “There’s nothing for the adults to do all day,” she says. “They can’t work, but every day, the children were picked up in buses to be taken to Dutch schools with local children.”

Returning to school, particularly when it’s in a new language, is a huge adjustment for many Syrian children, McCormack says. Even knowing the appropriate grade level is difficult with older children, some of whom have been out of school for as many as four years, and most of whom have no access to their school records.

These children are facing a massive adjustment, and maintaining their birth language and culture is key to every child’s identity. According to the Intercultural Development Research Association, a positive self-concept, which stems from the maintenance of the birth language, is crucial when adapting to a new language and culture. A growing body of research shows that for integration to be successful, Europe—and the U.S.—must embrace the languages and culture of those who immigrate there.

Many of the schools Syrian children attend in the Netherlands have no experience teaching children who do not speak Dutch, and McCormack—a champion for bilingual education—sees the lack of Arabic-language support in the schools and even at home as deeply problematic. According to recent statistics, of the 29,000 Syrians who have registered with a Dutch municipality since 2014, nearly 40 percent of them are children. McCormack is concerned about how they will be integrated into Dutch society without losing their own culture and language.

She asked the parents she met whether they planned to read to their children in Arabic to ensure they maintain their native language. “But,” she says, “they all said they wanted their children to speak Dutch as quickly as possible, and that they would be only speaking Dutch with them at home.”

It is unlikely that the U.S. will see the surge of Syrian refugees experienced in Europe. Over the last five years, nearly 4 million refugees have fled Syria, half of them children, and according to the Refugee Processing Center, only 2,700 have come to the states. In the fall of 2015, President Obama pledged to receive 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016, triggering strong political opposition claiming the move would pose a security threat. Twenty-seven governors said they would not allow Syrians into their states, including New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who said he would not even accept a 5-year-old orphan.   

Regardless, Arabic is already the most common language of refugees in the U.S., and is the fastest-growing language in the country. According to the Refugee Processing Center, of the 11,300 refugees admitted to the U.S. this fiscal year, 4,430 speak Arabic, and the Center for Immigration Studies reports that the number of refugees and immigrants from the Middle East increased by 13 percent between 2010 and 2013.

In the United States, approaches to integrating immigrant and refugee children in the educational system focus on getting the children proficient in English as quickly as possible, often at the expense of their native language, which can result in interrupted intellectual development and a break in valuable links to family and community.

The U.S. doesn’t have an official language, but English is the declared language of more than half the states. And in political rhetoric, it is frequently assumed that speaking English is essential to the American identity. Other politicians go beyond insisting immigrants learn English and argue for cultural assimilation. Last September, the then-Republican party presidential nomination hopeful Jeb Bush (a fluent Spanish speaker) told Iowans that we should “not have a multicultural society,” and that America is “better than every other country because of the values that people share—it defines our national identity.”

Wilkinson went on to argue that a political push to denounce languages other than English “further pushes the misconception that immigrant families refuse to learn English.” He writes that in fact 93 percent of U.S. residents speak at least some English.

But when it comes to integrating immigrant or refugee children, speaking “some” English isn’t enough. Just being conversant in a language—and not fluent—does not prepare children to learn academically in that language, according to Jim Cummins, one of the leading experts in bilingual education, who distinguishes two types of language competences: Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (common in the home and the playground) and Cognitive Academic Linguistic Proficiency (this superficial communicative ability typical in the classroom).

The former can be developed, according to Cummins, in two to three years, but he says “this superficial communicative ability may mislead adults and teachers into thinking that the child is ready for English-only classroom placement, when in fact the child only has interpersonal fluency—but not enough academic proficiency in English.” That proficiency, he says, takes up to seven years.

That children need seven years to be academically proficient in a new language is not reflected in current educational policy in regard to English language learners, which many experts believe is moving backward. The Bilingual Education Act (BEA), Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law in 1968, completely changed how English language learners were taught in the U.S. at the time. Among other shifts in contemporary thought, it recognized that the government had a responsibility to ensure “educational policy should work to equalize academic outcomes,” as well as the need for teachers who could not only teach a second language, but who could teach all subjects in that second language to students who were not yet proficient in English.

Several amendments to the 1968 BEA were made over the years. Under the Reagan administration, for example, more focus was put on the accelerated mainstreaming into all-English education and funding for English as a second language (versus bilingual) programs was added. But it was the passing of No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which President George W. Bush signed into law in 2001, that marked a “180-degree reversal in language policy,” according to RethiningSchools.org. English-language learners would now be expected to attain language proficiency while at the same time meeting the same academic standards as their native-English-speaking peers.

In December 2015, President Barack Obama repealed NCLB, replacing it with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which will come into effect in 2017. ESSA allows for dual language learners to spend a year in the country before being tested at the same level as native-English speakers, but it is still, according to McCormick, entirely too focused on “learning English as quickly as possible rather than providing bilingual education, which is a more effective approach.”

In an interview with Medill Reports Chicago, Firas Jawish, a Syrian refugee who settled in Chicago in 2014, said finding an appropriate school for his 3-year-old son has been a great worry. “We don’t want him to go to a play school,” he says, because they don’t want him to stop speaking Arabic. Jawish was concerned that learning English and Spanish in school and speaking Arabic at home would be too confusing for his son, and that the result would be the loss of Arabic.

His concerns are not unfounded. The younger an immigrant child is immersed in English, the more likely they are to lose the mother tongue, according to Claudio Toppelberg and Brian Collins, authors of a 2012 report on the mental health of immigrant children in the U.S. This is important, they say, because “the development of children’s home language may associate with strengthening of family cohesion and intimacy, parental authority and transmission of cultural norms, all of which can lead to a healthy adjustment and a strong identification and internalization of the social values of the family.”

There is some subtle evidence to support a growing openness to this “mutual relationship.” Professional-development tools exist to support teachers of ELL students with Arabic as a first language, to help teachers understand different customs relating to communication, as well as explanations for why these children make certain mistakes when transitioning to English. And in 2014, the The Modern Language Association (MLA) reported that Arabic had become the fastest growing foreign language in the U.S.

And many school districts are embracing bilingual education. New York City Public Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina plans to open 38 bilingual programs at city schools starting in September, 2016, including, according to the New York Daily News, 29 new dual-language programs that will include classes taught in Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, Arabic, Polish, and Spanish—with English used on alternating days.

Back in Europe, McCormack hopes her Books For Refugees initiative will help Arabic-language refugees maintain their language and culture while making their way in a new country, and says it’s mind-blowing how quickly it’s taken off, how many donations she is receiving with which to buy books and ship them to refugee centers in the Netherlands.

“What I want to do is so simple,” she says. “Even if I just get the message out there: that many of these children, some of whom haven’t been in school for a while now, have parents that probably aren’t even thinking about reading to them in Arabic. They think: we’re going to get to Holland and learn Dutch and English and forget all about Arabic. And they shouldn’t do that.”

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