Over the course of the past year, seventeen Syrian refugee children were resettled in Elizabeth, N.J. and placed in the Elizabeth public school system. As WNYC reported on March 29, 2016, some of these children are doing well, but others encounter bullying or academic struggles due to placement based on age regardless of gaps in schooling. One student, thirteen-year-old Aisha, was teased for wearing a hijab at her school to the point at which she took it off to prove to her classmates she wasn’t bald.

Aisha is now placed in a fifth-grade class at a private Islamic school in Teaneck, N.J., the Academy of Greatness and Excellence. She is one of six students belonging to two recently settled Syrian families who opted to pull their children out of the Elizabeth public school district and take advantage of scholarships offered to them by the private school. Though the students in her class are a few years younger than her (accounting for the lost schooling time spent fleeing Syria and living as a refugee in Egypt and Jordan) and she has much material to catch up on, Aisha feels comfortable in her new school.

Before stepping foot on U.S. soil, Syrian refugee children have dealt with far more adversity than most Americans will ever know, so the safe space created for them at the Academy of Greatness and Excellence is commendable. However, we should be striving to create similar safe spaces for these children in our integrated, public schools as well.

In the United States, school integration challenges for refugees are swelling. From the onset of the Syrian conflict in 2011 through 2015, the United States took in less than 2,000 refugees (of the nearly 5 million Syrians worldwide who have been forced out of their home country). Facing widespread criticism from the international community, President Obama pledged to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016—and we know over half of them will be children. The decision prompted serious backlash, with thirty-one American governors publicly opposing allowing Syrian refugees to settle in their states. In 2016 thus far, over 1200 Syrian refugees have been settled in American cities; two-thirds of Syrian refugees in the country have been placed in twenty-three states (including New Jersey) where governors have explicitly opposed their entry (states’ opposition of admitting these refugees is legally moot—constitutionally, such decisions are left to the federal government). However, such rhetoric serves to fuel discrimination and presents further cultural barriers to young Syrian refugees trying to assimilate to their new schools—as has been the case in Elizabeth.

Racially and socioeconomically diverse classrooms offer important academic and social benefits to students. It is imperative we ensure refugee children have access to these benefits in their public schools, both because most will have no alternatives such as the Academy of Greatness and Excellence, and because beyond our knowledge that separate is not equal, the social benefits that come hand-in-hand with integration will be absolutely essential to refugee children’s happiness in making friends and feeling as though they belong in their new home country. Meeting the educational needs of all students and creating environments where diversity fosters understanding does take work, and as many of the challenges raised when U.S. schools enroll students of varied backgrounds are only exacerbated in the cases of refugees, the influx in Syrian refugees the United States has pledged to admit certainly presents a hurdle for public schools.

However, it also presents us with an opportunity to expand our definition of integration, once more. As socioeconomic demographics have propelled us past solely racial dimensions in considering our schools, we must go further for refugees. After all, as Century Foundation fellow Halley Potter, policy associate Kimberly Quick, and contributor Elizabeth Davies have stated, “Integration is a social justice imperative.” For refugee students, though, effective school integration is unique in that it necessitates more than just attending public schools alongside other American students. It requires successfully implementing additional academic, language, and social supports to help these refugee students thrive and create environments in which refugee students and their peers can learn from each other. Making progress on the below elements of school integration will ease and enhance refugee children’s transition into their lives in the United States.

Improving Access to Early Childhood Education and Care

First and foremost, it is essential that immigrant and refugee families (as is the case with minority and low-income families) have improved access to excellent Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC). A Migration Policy Institute (MPI) study on refugees in Massachusetts found that institutional challenges arise for refugee families placing their children in ECEC programs due to refugee resettlement workers lacking sufficient training for the navigation of the ECEC system coupled with social service providers’ frequent lack of knowledge with regards to refugees. Furthermore, refugee families have a shorter timeframe to enroll their children in childcare or early education—upon entering the country, parents only have one to two months to enter an employment training program, and admission to many childcare centers is competitive, with openings posted up to a year in advance. MPI’s recommendation of enhanced resources and training in these areas for all relevant stakeholders (as well as their enhanced inter-agency collaboration) is critical for ensuring the youngest refugee children are as prepared as possible to enter elementary school.

Breaking Language Barriers

Refugees often arrive in the United States with no knowledge of English, which is a tremendous challenge to their ability to succeed in school and socialize with their peers. Schools in Elizabeth offer English as a Second Language (ESL) courses to refugee students daily and utilize Arabic-speaking teachers for translation purposes; International Rescue Committee academic coaches also work with schools and families to provide counseling and after-school homework help. ESL courses and tutors who speak Arabic are imperative for young Syrian refugees; we know that English language learners (ELLs) are known to perform better academically as well as gain greater language proficiency when they have access to high-quality English language instruction. Currently, the federal government provides grant funding to U.S. states through Title III to help ELLs; however, as this funding is largely viewed as “inefficient for ELL services,” forty-six states have allocated additional funding specifically to ELL education. And challenges remain: though almost all Title III schools provide ESL instruction in English, only 57 percent provided instruction in native languages as of 2010. Furthermore, 46 percent of these Title III district officials reported a knowledge gap on the lack of information on “proven curricula and programs” for ELLs to be problematic. Both federal and state governments must work to ensure resources for ELL education continue to rise proportionately to the influx of ELL students enrolled in U.S. schools.

Though teaching Arabic as a foreign language is already on the rise in U.S. public schools, the normalization of such course offerings—particularly in the cities where Syrian refugees are being concentrated—would provide Syrian students with the comfort of at least one course in their native language. Perhaps more importantly, it would provide students for whom English is their first language the opportunity to learn a foreign language that they can put to practice with their peers. Offering Arabic in public schools is a win-win opportunity to provide American foreign language programs with a much-needed enhancement, as well as a tool for the successful integration of refugee students with their peers.

Removing Stigmas through Sports

In 2002, the influx of Somalian refugees in American cities led Lewiston, Maine to have a debate over their resettlement. The city’s mayor at the time, Laurier Raymond, publicly opposed the new wave of immigrants, but the friction was lessened when the state realized a successful integration technique: soccer. In 2008, Abdikadir Negeye co-founded the Somali Bantu Youth Association of Maine, which paired a homework help program with a youth soccer league.

Still from One Team Film.
Still from One Team Film/ oneteamfilm.com.

The youth league’s alumni went on to join their high school team—comprised primarily of immigrants from six different countries—and gained national attention for the benefits of diversity (their 2015 state championship win didn’t hurt, either). The program is an example of the power of team-building through sports and other extracurricular activities; not only did the children’s involvement in both the youth league and their high school sports team ease their integration individually, it began to unite a town that had been previously divided by anti-immigration rhetoric.