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Supporting Ukrainian and Other Refugee Students

February 13, 2023 - 6 minute read

The devastating images of the Russian invasion of Ukraine may appear distant as one watches the tragic scenes of war and hears the number of deaths on the news.  The consequences of this war may not be felt by the average American in their daily lives.  However, international strife is quite often felt by American educators as the innocent, young victims of international conflict enter their schools as students.  While this article focuses on the Ukrainian refugees, it is not my intent to ignore refugees from other nations who are suffering from comparable hardships.  My hope is that the recommendations offered in this article will be used to support all K-12 refugee students.

Around 85,000 Ukrainians came to the United States since the Russian invasion began (Cohen, 2022).  As educators, our humanitarian contribution to the plight of the Ukrainian refugees lies in the support of their precious children.  The school setting can become a safe haven for the refugee children to find safety, support, and healing through the provision of a trauma-sensitive classroom.

Although the DSM-V-TR has the diagnosis of “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” it is important to realize that there is also an unrecognized “Present-Traumatic Stress Disorder” that accompanies the experience of entering a foreign land with no money, no housing, and limited understanding of the receiving country’s language.  While these issues may not be on the forefront of children’s minds as they attend school each day, they can sense their parents’ stress as they overhear parental discussions implying an uncertain future.

            A humble stance of equality and respect is crucial for educators to maintain when interacting with the refugee parents.  To lose one’s home and worldly possessions is already painful.  It is crucial that they not be stripped of their worth and self-respect as well through any unintentional assumptions.  It is not uncommon for the refugees to be well-educated, multilingual individuals.  For example, several Ukrainian refugees with whom I encountered held successful management positions and spoke two to four languages.  However, their lack of references and work experience limited their occupational options to minimum-wage jobs.  Their present status is no indicator of their previous positions.  Honor every refugee as if he/she was a well-educated professional for he/she just may well be one.  Even if he/she were not a professional, the respect that is given holds great value in terms of upholding a refugee’s dignity.

Because the American school system may be different from that of their native country, it is important to patiently explain to refugee parents how school is conducted and the parental rights to which they are entitled.   Decisions relating to their youngsters may require more detailed explanations, particularly in terms of the consequences and implications of each presented option.  School meetings may be longer if interpretation is involved, but assisting refugee families is a matter of compassion rather than of convenience.

It is often unlikely for school districts to have Ukrainian interpreters and translators.  Because many Ukrainians also speak Russian, it is quite possible that the services of a Russian interpreter will be used.  This can then become an awkward, and even emotionally painful, predicament due to the Russian invasion.  Rather than ignoring the proverbial “elephant in the room,” it would be wise to address the discomfort and allow the interpreter to explain his/her sincere desire to facilitate the best outcome for the Ukrainian child through accurate interpretation. If the parent’s discomfort remains, then virtual translation services are available in the Ukrainian language.  Written material must also be translated.  Online translation programs tend to be very literal, and thus unreliable.  Some final recommendations to serve refugee students and parents are as follows:

1.        Because most of the refugees do not have stable housing and transportation to school, the students would qualify to receive services under the McKinney-Vento Act.  

2.       The refugee child would qualify for reduced-price or free lunch at school.

3.       Establish a list of relevant community resources near the school (in the primary language), such as refugee support agencies.

4.      After they qualify for Medi-Cal, refer them to counseling services and explain how the emotional support can help their entire family better cope with all of the changes in their lives.  The concept of therapy may be foreign to them, so it may be necessary to explain how this method of healing is effective for trauma.  Seek out therapists who speak their primary language.

5.      Choose at least two school employees to whom the refugee students and/or parents may turn to if any issue should arise (i.e. bullying, class changes).  It would help them feel more comfortable at school knowing that there are a few familiar people who are ready to help them.  Some possible individuals include the school counselor, the school psychologist, or the community worker/liaison.

6.       Choose two to three classmates who can befriend the refugee student by eating lunch and playing with him/her.  Immersing the child in social situations will allow the child to learn the English language in an enjoyable manner.

7.       Consider enrolling the child in any musical programs which may be offered at school.  Although McFerrari et al. (2020) noted the need for more scientific evidence regarding the healing powers of music for trauma in their literature review, other studies found music to be beneficial for trauma (Rosenberg, 2021).  A few Ukrainian students with whom I interacted enjoyed learning to play music at their school sites.

8.       Trauma may affect a child’s learning, so be cautious about drawing conclusions regarding a child’s academic skills and cognitive ability.  I examined writing samples from a Ukrainian student with autism prior to the war and after escaping the war.  The timespan between the samples was not long, but the decline was dramatically apparent and concerning to the child’s parents.  Refugee parents need to be informed that temporary regression, both behaviorally and academically, is very possible during times of trauma and stress.  A counseling referral may need to precede a referral for special education services because of the complex interaction of factors which may affect the child’s learning.

Teaching a refugee student may require more time and effort.  However, educators must keep in mind that they are not only teaching a child without a nation.  They are preparing a child to positively impact his/her new nation.  That is exactly what many teachers in California did for an underweight toddler who escaped a Cambodian genocide in 1975.  Little did they know that she would one day grow up to write this article.

Dr MaryAnn Seng
Professor, School of Education
School Counseling Program


Dr. MaryAnn Seng has been an assistant professor at Concordia University since 2018 after a 20-year career as a school psychologist.  She also had some school counseling, academic advising, and internship program coordinating experience prior to her arrival at Concordia. Her Ph.D. was earned from Chapman University, and her dissertation examined the academic needs of children with lupus.  She enjoyed working with children of Cambodian refugees and serving as a bilingual consultant in the Long Beach Unified School District, and continues to do occasional bilingual consultation.  She hopes to continue to do research to support the academic needs of children with medical issues.

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