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Refugees Welcome? How Schools can Offer Proper Support

Young asylum seekers flee poverty and war, travelling months and years to reach safety – yet they’re often seen as a burden on our schools. Why aren’t we supporting them properly, asks Nola Ellen...

  • Refugees Welcome? How Schools can Offer Proper Support

Who are refugees? Who are migrants? Or asylum seekers?

The child-friendly definition I always use is that ‘asylum’ means safe place, which is what asylum seekers are looking for, and a refugee is someone who has permission to stay. Migrants, more broadly, choose to leave one place for another for many reasons. Asylum seekers and refugees do not move through choice. Many don’t want to leave, but know it’s simply not safe to remain.

The situations people flee, the journey here and navigating our asylum system vary widely, but can have a huge effect on emotional wellbeing. Young refugees can face displacement, experiencing and witnessing conflict and violence, bereavement and separation from their friends, family and way of life.

Raising awareness

Some families make long and difficult journeys across Africa, Asia and Europe, and on the way can experience hostility, violence, detention and exploitation. Then, once they get to the UK, there are even more challenges to face – from the lack of sensitivity towards them in the media to our complex asylum process. Parents can wait years for a decision on their asylum claim, and because we don’t allow most to work they’re pushed way below the poverty line.

These might be skilled, well-educated, professional people who wish to work, to support their families and contribute to society. It can be really crushing on self-worth. And after all that, with the success rate of all asylum claims being around 30%, many live in fear of detention and deportation.

All this has an impact on children too. They can find it difficult to sleep and concentrate in the classroom. Then there’s racism, language barriers, cultural differences and so on.

For me, enabling true inclusion starts with raising awareness, as children and adults need to unravel what they think they know about refugees. Even in schools with a high proportion of refugee children, this knowledge is often very basic. The great news, however, is there are quite a few strategies I’ve experienced that have worked incredibly well in promoting this inclusion.

A thirst for information

Firstly, staff who do home-school liaisons need to be encouraged to build,  where possible, a clear picture of children᾿s lives at home, what their experiences were in their homeland and on the journey here, and their educational history. This helps put behaviour and attainment in context. Staff need to foster strong links with parents, creating a safe space in which they feel involved, welcomed, supported and included. The more you can get parents into school, the better.

You can also create a welcome DVD or book. Children can get involved in the storyboarding, filming different parts of the school, interviewing teachers and talking about things like extra-curricular activities, lunchtimes, uniform, PE kit – everything someone new to England would need to know about the school.

Peer-to-peer buddy initiatives work well – especially if volunteer positions are advertised like job roles, where interested pupils are interviewed for the position. Anything that helps children to boost their English language skills is great, as are clubs which encourage children to celebrate their cultural heritage with others. This builds self esteem and a strong positive identity, reminding children that they don’t need to assimilate to all things English to fit in.

The children in your class have a thirst for information and will engage with refugee awareness messages really well. But it’s also about helping pupils to become active citizens of positive change in your school and community. Ask them, “What are you going to do with this new information?”. It’s getting them to think about the small acts of kindness that they can do that make an amazing difference.

And the ways children respond really do touch your heart. Children are generally so receptive, accepting and open-minded. It makes you think that if more adults shared their mentality, perhaps there wouldn’t even be a need for such work.


Nola Ellen offers refugee awareness sessions for children and staff in schools. She is currently leading Hearts and Hopes – a project that builds connections between British schoolchildren and children at the refugee camp in Calais. For more information, visit nolaellentraining.co.uk/hearts-and-hopes or facebook.com/nolaellentraining

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