Burmese Refugee Students in U.S. Schools: What Educators Should Know

Burmese Refugee Students in U.S. Schools: What Educators Should Know

M. Gail Hickey (Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, USA)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 18
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7703-4.ch012
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The recent rapid influx of refugee students into U.S. schools has been a learning experience for schools. Not only do U.S. refugees come with memories of trauma, they also have specialized educational needs that differ from international students' or voluntary migrants' needs. They have very different stories of resettlement than either immigrants or international students. This study adds to the available scholarship by advancing understanding of Burmese refugee students' specialized educational needs through personal narratives.
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Burmese refugees are the largest group to resettle in the United States in the past decade. Most U.S. Burmese refugees, 72 percent, are women and children (U.S. Department of State, 2017). One-quarter of Burmese refugees admitted into the U.S. are school-aged children (Toppa, 2015). These statistics indicate that U.S. schools and communities have seen an enormous influx of Burmese refugees in recent years.

Refugee students have different needs than those from immigrant families. Unlike immigrants, refugees do not leave their home countries by choice. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a refugee is “a person outside of his or her country of nationality who is unable or unwilling to return because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion” (UNHCR, 2011, https://www.unrefugees.org/refugee-facts/what-is-a-refugee/). Students from refugee families are likely to have experienced violence or been targeted for abuse during civil unrest in their home countries. These students and their families may have lived in refugee camps for years or even for decades prior to arriving in the United States (UNHCR, 2000; Westernmeyer & Wahmanholm, 1996). Thus, they arrive in the U.S. with psychological, social and educational needs, often within special education, which can negatively impact their resettlement process — in particular, the schooling experience.

Scholars advise schools and teachers to make accommodations that facilitate learning for refugees (Taylor and Sidhu, 2012; Dryden-Peterson, 2012; Shakya et al., 2012). Despite this best practice recommendation, however, refugee students continue to experience challenges related to education (Gilhooly, 2015; McWilliams & Bonet, 2016). This situation is problematic, since students from refugee backgrounds now make up a significant proportion those enrolled in U.S. schools.

Many Burmese refugees resettled in the U.S. Between 1990 and 2010. More than 92,000 Burmese came to the United States seeking refuge as a result of protracted civil war, military occupation, and human rights violations in their home country (U.S. Department of State, 2011). Over 80,000 Burmese fled to the U.S. 2004-2014 (Lum, 2014). Burmese refugees represent 23 percent, of all refugees resettled 2007-2017 (Zong and Batalova, 2017).

Educators often view refugee and immigrant students as one large group with similar needs (Roxas, 2008). This mistaken perspective, combined with a lack of knowledge about the pre-migration experiences of specific refugee groups, results in a lack of suitable differentiation of educational experiences for students from refugee families (Goodwin, 2002; Hilburn, 2013, 2014; Sox, 2009). The situation is so dire that 39 percent of Burmese students enrolled in U.S. schools drop out prior to high school graduation (Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund, 2014). Clearly, school personnel and faculty in teacher education programs in the United States are in need of information about Burmese refugee families’ experiences in order to develop and sustain positive academic environments for Burmese students.

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