Refugees increase, face education, language hurdles

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Capital News Service
LANSING — The world has a growing number of displaced people driven from their homes because of conflict, more than ever before, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. For the 86 percent of them in developing countries, that means increasingly limited access to quality education.
“Education is vital in restoring hope and dignity to young people driven from their homes,” the agency said.
But even refugees living in Michigan may face serious obstacles in obtaining education, experts say.

Zeina Hamade, a community outreach coordinator at the U.S. Committee for Refugees-Detroit, said refugee children “are not able to attend school because of the political situation in their countries, but they also must put their education on pause, usually for a few years, while they are waiting to be resettled.”
In Hamade’s experience, children who are resettled in Michigan “are continually trying to catch up on their education.”
And Erin Blackwell, a program coordinator for the West Michigan Refugee Education and Cultural Center in Grand Rapids, said the children she sees have been exposed to trauma and interrupted schooling.
“They are experiencing an overwhelming amount of culture shock. It’s that combination that makes it a big struggle,” she said.
Blackwell said she’s inspired by how excited children are when they receive their first backpack or have access to things like pencils and paper.
There are 51.2 million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world, half younger than 18, according to the U.N. agency.
If current trends continue, that number is expected to increase. On average 32,200 people fled their homes every day in 2013 because of conflict or persecution, the agency’s Global Trends Report said.
Jeff Crisp, senior director for policy and advocacy at Refugees International based in Washington, D.C., said refugee families “may go to a country where the language and the curriculum are completely different from what they’re familiar with in their own country.”
Also, many refugee families struggle to make ends meet, so instead of attending school, children work to supplement the family income.
Sharon Muldoon, an education supervisor with Bethany Christian Services in Grand Rapids, said educational struggles aren’t limited to children. She works with adults who have never been to school before and are illiterate in their own language.
“They’re adults that have never learned how to learn. They don’t have school skills,” Muldoon said.
Among displaced refugees in Michigan, the main home countries are Bhutan, Burma, Somalia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Iraq, she said.
Stephanie Nawyn, an assistant professor of sociology at Michigan State University, said that “language is the biggest impediment” for resettled refugees.
For many refugees, difficulties don’t arise just because they can’t speak English but also because it’s difficult to find people locally who speak their native language.
The Global Institute of Lansing provides GED-level education for refugees who are too old to attend public school. However, according to Nawyn, that service is available only to refugees able to speak some English.

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