Reflecting on the Experiences of Syrian Refugee Young Adults in Adult Education in Quebec: the Practitioner’s Perspective


 Presenter (s) Domenique Sherab, McGill University; Milagros Calderon Moya, McGill University; Arianne Maraj, McGill University; Meghri Bakarian, McGill University; Ratna Ghosh, McGill University

In 2016, Canada admitted the largest number of refugees in a single year in nearly four decades (World Vision, 2018). Around 18,000 of them settled in Quebec, with the majority settling in Montreal (IRCC, 2018). A year later, a report found that the integration of Syrian refugees remained a challenge as refugees tended to arrive with a low level of education and very limited knowledge of English or French (Lowrie, 2017). With the government response focused on child education and supporting adults get into work, Syrian refugee young adult (18-25 years), with interrupted education are in a particularly vulnerable position.

There is growing awareness that education programming for child refugees, let alone for adults, fails to take account of the specific challenges that face refugee young adults (AMSSA, 2018). Existing literature from Canada highlights that the challenge for refugee young adults to access and succeed in education is far greater than that for children as a result of their disrupted education and pressure to work (Wilkinson, 2001; Boyd, 2002; Gunderson, 2002; MacKay and Tavares, 2005; Kanu, 2008; MacNevin, 2012; Hou and Bonikowska; 2016). After years outside the formal schooling system, refugee young adults face the daunting prospect of being in school for long periods to get a high school diploma to continue to higher education or vocational training. While education is widely accepted as an important basis for successful integration, entering school at an advanced age can create a sense of anxiety and hopelessness (MacKay and Tavares, 2005). Adding to the displacement experience and its administrative challenges, financial pressure, language barriers, overt and covert forms of racism, differences in approaches to teaching and learning, all contribute to refugee students feeling overwhelmed, unsupported and dropping out (Baffoe, 2006; Blanchet-Cohen, Denov, Fraser and Bilotta, 2017).

This study is part of a larger research project funded by the FRQSC which aims to advance our knowledge and understanding of the support needs, psychological well-being and extent of distress of young adult Syrian refugees and similar at-risk youth enrolled in adult education centres in Quebec. In addition, this broader study seeks to increase capacity to begin meeting these needs, so as to improve the school success, retention and overall integration of this important youth sub-group. For the purposes of this paper, we will present the results from interviews with adult education practitioners about their experiences working with refugee students.

This research project adopted integration as an organising conceptual framework. The academic literature has long been in disagreement as to how integration can be defined (Castles, 2001; Kuhlma, 1991). Within refugee studies literature, local integration is broadly associated with the formal legal inclusion of a refugee into the country of asylum (Long, 2009) accompanied by economic integration and social connections in a country of first asylum (Crisp, 2004; Fielden, 2008; Jacobsen, 2001). Integration in resettlement contexts in contrast is generally associated with a gamut of indicators, such as employment, education and wealth (Korac, 2003). However, packaged, literature highlights how integration is a dynamic, ongoing process, impacted inevitably by the services available, the individual situation of the refugee, and the host society’s attitudes (Yu et al., 2007).

Ager and Strang (2008) developed what they deemed to be a ‘mid-level’ theory that underlines that no aspect of integration should be seen in isolation from the other. Conceptually, their theory is broken down into four levels including the foundation, the facilitators, the social connections and the means and markers. They suggest that by highlighting the connecting factors between different areas, such as employment, housing, education and health, their theory can be a useful tool to engage with policy makers and practitioners about the integration of refugees.

In line with Ager and Strange (2008), we agree that employment and education are not the sole indicators of integration and recognise the role of social connections, language and cultural knowledge, safety, stability and psychological well-being. To guide our theoretical work on adult education and Francizisation centres, we draw upon Gibbons notion of ‘scaffolding’ (Gibbons, 2015) which was developed in relation to English learning school-aged children and the support that teachers can provide. Stretching beyond Gibbons’ original focus, we will utilise ‘scaffolding’ as a term to encompass support services within the classroom as well as the adult education and Francization centres and education system more broadly. While the term ‘scaffolding’ is immediately evocative of support, specifically complementary support services that require a number of specially trained support staff, utilising different methods of intervention, and existing in a temporary nature to support the successful learning process. Our specific focus on the adult education system in Quebec is an attempt to strengthen the existing services to ensure that students can thrive in the classroom and in their ongoing process of integration.

Our research questions for this paper were twofold: a) How do adult education practitioners perceive the challenges and support needs of Syrian refugee students? And b) What avenues of support will better enable students with disrupted education to continue and thrive in their education? We conducted in depth semi-structured interviews with adult education practitioners across four school boards in Quebec to understand their experiences and perspectives of the support services in place for students with disrupted education and who may be experiencing trauma. Thematic analysis was conducted using Nvivo software, using a combination of inductive and deductive coding to uncover key themes.

We will share the preliminary findings of our analysis of the practitioners’ interviews. Themes centre around informal strategies that support the young adult Syrian refugee students in and outside of the classroom, considering their support needs from academic, social and psychological perspective. We believe that this study will shed light on how better to program for refugee young adults in adult education and contribute to policy discussions around formal support services in adult education that can benefit refugee students.

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