A Research Project That Had To Be Done

Here’s a timely blog on Syrian students from Distinguished Fellow Professor Ira Bogotch…

In October, 2016, as I boarded the Porter Airlines plane taking me to Ontario, Canada, and, then in November of that year, boarding Eurowings to Germany, I had many questions and just as many assumptions, not the least of which was `why was I traveling to Canada and Germany to study school integration of newcomers from Syria?’ As a US citizen, and as a Jew, US policies governing immigration, both legal and illegal, are not so much being debated reasonably as a policy conversation, but rather are being viewed today as a singular litmus test contributing to the political divides in the country, if not also the world. Make no mistake, immigration laws should be on the table for extended debates in all fields of study and in all societies. Yet, according to estimates made by the Pew Research Center nearly 13 million Syrians have been displaced after seven years of conflict in their country. Approximately 6 million people within Syria are displaced having their homes and towns destroyed. While the other 7 million have been able to seek refuge in other countries. These countries include Turkey (3.4 million), Lebanon (1 million), Jordan (660,000), Germany (530,000), Iraq (250,000), Egypt (130,000), Sweden (110,000), Greece (60,000), Canada (54,000), Austria (50,000), and the United States (33,000) (Connor, 2018). Of course, some of these countries have done so by setting up strict selection criteria, including Canada and Germany.

Despite this alarmingly high number, most of the international community has done little or nothing in the face of this humanitarian crisis. Even today, the isolationistic and xenophobic policies perpetuated by so-called Populist and Nationalist administrations, including the US not only restrict people from certain Muslim countries from entering the US, but restrict all legal immigration pathways as well.

While it is a privilege as an educational leadership researcher to decide which of the many significant events happening in the world are worthy of research, I felt compelled to study [im]migration. Specifically, I wanted to capture the in-the-moment voices of educators who were called upon, involuntarily, to serve these newcomers. It was often left to the frontline educators to educate themselves on what was happening, sharing information and alleviating their own stress. The effects of the newcomers’ traumas emerged, expressed physically through violence and psychologically as somatic complaints. The educators quoted newcomer statements such as “my soul feels dark,” “my heart feels squeezed” and conversely “I feel human again,” “I have rights,” “I can contribute to the community,” and “I can say `no’ without fear of retribution (prison or disappearance).’ All these explicit emotional statements brought stress to both the individual educators and onto the school systems as a whole, as everyone involved had to learn to cope with integrating the newcomers.

I personally fight for the future of my students (or I fight against their shared past/trauma). It is for me a really challenging when they tell me about their trauma but I think it has made me grow as an individual.

I quickly found that the name `intensive class’ also meant it would be intensive for me as a teacher.

Yet once on-the-ground, when asked why I was studying Syrian school integration, the most honest response had nothing to do with my expertise or any singular research agenda. Rather, I replied, “that I had to.” In other words, I wanted to connect directly to this humanitarian issue not only to advance my own learning, but also to push myself and the field of educational leadership beyond its ever-present managerial lens which focuses primarily on how best to run schools and school systems. Educational leadership, for me and I hope for you, too, has a larger purpose in educating children and adults towards a more democratic future internationally. Educational leadership, again for me, is deeply personal – even as I study abroad.

Other “had-to’s”

Educators have had to manage their own stress, borne from of a commitment to make educational, social, economic and political differences. Their message was, and still is, one of hope and optimism; it is also a message not often not heard beyond schools by citizens and politicians. Thus, our responsibility is to give voice to their optimism in hopes of disrupting anti-immigrant discourses and hateful narratives now heard around the world.

While some federal funding was provided for the education of Syrians (i.e., children and adults) in Canada and Germany, School Boards and school not only had discretion, but also had to make do with existing resources-necessitating creative and innovative ways to meet educational demands for all K-12 students.

German language teachers were moved into German as a Second Language classrooms and school administrators had to not only rely on the good will of their faculties to meet new enrollment needs, but also had use funding “tricks,” such as replacing pregnant teachers on leave with retired teachers to cover newcomer classes.

Although many of the Canadian schools had tens of other spoken foreign languages, Arabic was prioritized as were the Syrians. “We had to get more teachers, social workers, and administrative assistants as the time went on, all of whom were needed to welcome and schedule families and students.”

Recognizing that many Syrians had interruptions in their formal education, there had to be a relearning of how to sit in a classroom and follow school-rules. “We’re sitting these 6’4” guys in a desk asking them to learn something, while they are attached to their phones because they are wanting to know what happening with their family in Syria. They are not necessarily present and they’re forced to sit for a long time and not be active…”.

When we asked whether the school or school system was in support of newcomer education, the responses were always positive and optimistic. In one extended conversation with a Canadian educator, she explained how a systemic approach to newcomer education, from welcoming students and families to second language classes to addressing trauma among the students was far better than when administrators or teachers had to individually address problems and seek out “heroic” solutions. The building of support systems and inter-agency relationships across responsibilities was deliberate and beneficial for it allowed for educators not only to hand-off problems to others, but to have confidence that the system would work and students/families would not fall through the cracks.

What characterized the autonomous German schools, which had to depend upon individual actions taken by the German educators themselves, was that they were far less formal and loose in comparison to the Canadian support systems. While it was clear to us that the surge had brought administrators and language teachers much closer together, the issues of newcomers were not always being addressed school-wide. In fact, with tight schedules and shorter school days in Germany, it was difficult for the German as a Second Language (GSL) teachers to find time and space to communicate with regular teachers about their immigrant students.

Even in the best of circumstances, educators face institutional barriers as they do their daily work. What was the same in both contexts was that the integration of newcomers, particularly in early 2016, came with a continuous sense of urgency and change to the way things had to be done. In the context of Canada, this urgency and change were met systemically with innovations and many structural supports; while in Germany, the urgency and change was matter-of-factly incorporated into individual educators’ personal, professional and cultural responsibilities without very many systemic supports.

Not Refugees

Language reflects the attitudes and values of its speakers; in Germany, rather than referring to refugees as Flüchtling, a term directly related to their status as asylum seekers, refugees are given the title Neuzugewanderte, which means ‘Newcomer.’ The terminology that has developed around the Syrian refugee crisis speaks to the host country’s attitude towards today’s asylum seekers. The very essence of successful school integration in the two contexts is the objective of German/Canadian residency and citizenship for the Syrians.

As it was explained to us during one of our early interviews in Canada:

I just wanted to tell you that I don’t use the word refugee. I was taught by our settlement worker in schools that they’ve found refuge here, so they are newcomers from Syria; that is how the language that we use: newcomers from Syria. Other people refer to them as Syrian refugees but that’s a derogatory term from what my settlement worker in schools has said; so, if I was to read your [chapter], and it said Syrian refugees, I would put it aside because I would think you don’t know what you’re talking about. You should know that our language is newcomers from Syria in whatever you write.

Settling upon the term “newcomer,” is also in line with the concept of social justice, a term much maligned by specific segments of today’s US popular culture. Instead of looking to redress inequities both in schools and society, conservative commentators refer to social advocates as “social justice warriors,” or “socialists” who want to redistribute wealth. Yet, the meanings of social justice are both cultural and political and grounded in the need of individuals and communities (Bogotch, 2002, 2008, 2014). In this sense, social justice is also contingent upon situations and contexts in the environment, sometimes aligned with humanitarian issues, but many times not. Social justice, like attitudes and policies towards immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, is a matter of political will and economic development. Global citizens as well as many world governments today seem to ignore immigrant contributions to economic growth when it does not fit their nationalistic narratives. It is such ignorance and paradoxes which challenge the quest for educational leadership for social justice.

Meet Ira Bogotch