[lg policy] Losing Identity During the Refugee Crisis

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Mon May 16 11:13:03 EDT 2016

 Losing Identity During the Refugee Crisis

The difference between assimilation and integration in the classroom
Ele Cundi, 5, a Syrian refugee, poses as she sits with friends in
kindergarten at Midyat refugee camp in Turkey Umit Bektas / Reuters


Text Size

   - Tracy Brown Hamilton
   - 7:30 AM ET
   - Education <http://www.theatlantic.com/education/>

Rachel McCormack arrived in Europe last November to research international
schools catering to English-speaking students, but her plans were
overwhelmed by the magnitude of the continent’s refugee crisis. Now, she’s
spearheading a campaign to deliver Arabic-language books to refugee
shelters in the Netherlands.

McCormack, a professor of literacy education at Rhode Island’s Roger
Williams University, says the crisis felt more real as she watched the
European news. “All I was seeing were images of Syrian families walking
across Europe, and wondering what’s going to happen to them,” she says. “I
thought what I should really be looking at is educating myself more about
what’s being done to assist them.”

She paired up with an historian of Syrian descent who’s based in Italy but
was born in the Netherlands, and who is writing a book about Syria.
Together they drove for 14 hours, visiting several shelters by the
German-Dutch border and talking with many of the Syrian families living

McCormack was particularly interested in the children, and how they would
adapt in their new home. “There’s nothing for the adults to do all day,”
she says. “They can’t work, but every day, the children were picked up in
buses to be taken to Dutch schools with local children.”
Related Story

The Schools Taking in Syrian Refugees

Returning to school, particularly when it’s in a new language, is a huge
adjustment for many Syrian children, McCormack says. Even knowing the
appropriate grade level is difficult with older children, some of whom have
been out of school for as many as four years, and most of whom have no
access to their school records.

These children are facing a massive adjustment, and maintaining their birth
language and culture is key to every child’s identity. According to
the Intercultural
Development Research Association
a positive self-concept, which stems from the maintenance of the birth
language, is crucial when adapting to a new language and culture. A growing
body of research shows that for integration to be successful, Europe—and
the U.S.—must embrace the languages and culture of those who immigrate

Many of the schools Syrian children attend in the Netherlands have no
experience teaching children who do not speak Dutch, and McCormack—a
champion for bilingual education—sees the lack of Arabic-language support
in the schools and even at home as deeply problematic. According to recent
of the 29,000 Syrians who have registered with a Dutch municipality since
2014, nearly 40 percent of them are children. McCormack is concerned about
how they will be integrated into Dutch society without losing their own
culture and language.

She asked the parents she met whether they planned to read to their
children in Arabic to ensure they maintain their native language. “But,”
she says, “they all said they wanted their children to speak Dutch as
quickly as possible, and that they would be only speaking Dutch with them
at home.”
“They should be speaking the language of their culture and not feeling bad
about doing it.”There is a wealth of research
that points to the value of immigrant parents maintaining their first
language at home with their children, although some educators feel it makes
their jobs harder. McCormack says she hears this often back in the U.S.
“People will complain that they have students in their class that only
speak Spanish at home,” she says, “and I’ll say, ‘Good, that’s what they
should be doing; they should be speaking the language of their culture and
not feeling bad about doing it.’”

It is unlikely that the U.S. will see the surge of Syrian refugees
experienced in Europe. Over the last five years, nearly 4 million refugees
have fled Syria, half of them children, and according to the Refugee
Processing Center, only 2,700 have come to the states. In the fall of 2015,
President Obama pledged to receive 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016,
triggering strong political opposition claiming the move would pose a
security threat. Twenty-seven governors said they would not allow Syrians
into their states, including New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who said he
would not even accept a 5-year-old orphan.

Regardless, Arabic is already the most common language of refugees in the
U.S., and is the fastest-growing language
in the country. According to the Refugee Processing Center, of the 11,300
refugees admitted to the U.S. this fiscal year, 4,430 speak Arabic, and the
Center for Immigration Studies reports that the number of refugees and
immigrants from the Middle East increased by 13 percent between 2010 and

In the United States, approaches to integrating immigrant and refugee
children in the educational system focus on getting the children proficient
in English as quickly as possible, often at the expense of their native
language, which can result in interrupted intellectual development and a
break in valuable links to family and community.

The U.S. doesn’t have an official language, but English is the declared
language of more than half the states
And in political rhetoric
<http://time.com/4024396/sarah-palin-speak-american-energy-department/>, it
is frequently assumed that speaking English is essential to the American
identity. Other politicians go beyond insisting immigrants learn English
and argue for cultural assimilation. Last September, the then-Republican
party presidential nomination hopeful Jeb Bush
(a fluent Spanish speaker) told Iowans that we should “not have a
multicultural society,” and that America is “better than every other
country because of the values that people share—it defines our national
In 2015 these ideas go against the freedoms that are supposed to be at the
core of what it means to be ‘American.’This implication that only
English-speaking Americans have values is destructive, according to A.B.
Wilkinson, an assistant professor of history at the University of Nevada,
Las Vegas, who wrote last year on The Huffington Post
that “this type of prejudice threatens the cultural heritage of millions of
people in the United States … Assimilation efforts have changed over the
years, yet they remain colonial, oppressive, and in 2015 these ideas go
against the freedoms that are supposed to be at the core of what it means
to be ‘American’.”

Wilkinson went on to argue that a political push to denounce languages
other than English “further pushes the misconception that immigrant
families refuse to learn English.” He writes that in fact 93 percent of
U.S. residents speak at least some English.

But when it comes to integrating immigrant or refugee children, speaking
“some” English isn’t enough. Just being conversant in a language—and not
fluent—does not prepare children to learn academically in that language,
according to Jim Cummins <http://esl.fis.edu/teachers/support/cummin.htm>,
one of the leading experts in bilingual education, who distinguishes two
types of language competences: Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills
(common in the home and the playground) and Cognitive Academic Linguistic
Proficiency (this superficial communicative ability typical in the

The former can be developed, according to Cummins, in two to three years,
but he says “this superficial communicative ability may mislead adults and
teachers into thinking that the child is ready for English-only classroom
placement, when in fact the child only has interpersonal fluency—but not
enough academic proficiency in English.” That proficiency, he says, takes
up to seven years.

That children need seven years to be academically proficient in a new
language is not reflected in current educational policy in regard to
English language learners, which many experts
believe is moving backward. The Bilingual Education Act (BEA), Title VII of
the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which President Lyndon B.
Johnson signed into law in 1968, completely changed how English language
learners were taught in the U.S. at the time. Among other shifts in
contemporary thought, it recognized that the government had a
responsibility to ensure “educational policy should work to equalize
academic outcomes
as well as the need for teachers who could not only teach a second
language, but who could teach all subjects in that second language to
students who were not yet proficient in English.

Several amendments
<http://www.umich.edu/%7Eac213/student_projects05/be/legislation.html> to
the 1968 BEA were made over the years. Under the Reagan administration, for
example, more focus was put on the accelerated mainstreaming into
all-English education and funding for English as a second language (versus
bilingual) programs was added. But it was the passing of No Child Left
Behind Act (NCLB), which President George W. Bush signed into law in 2001,
that marked a “180-degree reversal in language policy,” according to
English-language learners would now be expected to attain language
proficiency while at the same time meeting the same academic standards as
their native-English-speaking peers.

In December 2015, President Barack Obama repealed NCLB, replacing it with
the Every Student Succeeds Act <http://www.edcentral.org/essadlls/> (ESSA),
which will come into effect in 2017. ESSA allows for dual language learners
to spend a year in the country before being tested at the same level as
native-English speakers, but it is still, according to McCormick, entirely
too focused on “learning English as quickly as possible rather than
providing bilingual education, which is a more effective approach.”

In an interview with Medill Reports Chicago
Firas Jawish, a Syrian refugee who settled in Chicago in 2014, said finding
an appropriate school for his 3-year-old son has been a great worry. “We
don’t want him to go to a play school,” he says, because they don’t want
him to stop speaking Arabic. Jawish was concerned that learning English and
Spanish in school and speaking Arabic at home would be too confusing for
his son, and that the result would be the loss of Arabic.

His concerns are not unfounded. The younger an immigrant child is immersed
in English, the more likely they are to lose the mother tongue, according
to Claudio Toppelberg and Brian Collins, authors of a 2012 report
<http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3526379/> on the mental health
of immigrant children in the U.S. This is important, they say, because “the
development of children’s home language may associate with strengthening of
family cohesion and intimacy, parental authority and transmission of
cultural norms, all of which can lead to a healthy adjustment and a strong
identification and internalization of the social values of the family.”
“The experience of assimilating differs from integrating because it implies
losing one’s identity.”According to a 2013 report by then masters candidate
Rebecca Nathanson
the distinction between assimilation and integration is significant.
“‘Assimilation’ and ‘integration’ are controversial but distinct terms,”
she writes. “[…] the experience of assimilating differs from integrating
because it implies losing one’s identity, which risks becoming absorb[ed]
in the system. Integration, on the other [hand], makes room for a person’s
individual cultural values, practices, and identity.” According to
Nathanson, “integration is the preferred experience since it acknowledges
the mutual relationship and impacts that refugees, immigrants, and
individuals in the host culture have on each other.”

There is some subtle evidence to support a growing openness to this “mutual
relationship.” Professional-development tools
exist to support teachers of ELL students with Arabic as a first language,
to help teachers understand different customs relating to communication, as
well as explanations for why these children make certain mistakes
when transitioning to English. And in 2014, the The Modern Language
<http://monitor.icef.com/2014/12/arabic-language-studies-booming-us/> (MLA)
reported that Arabic had become the fastest growing foreign language in the

And many school districts are embracing bilingual education. New York City
Public Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina plans to open 38 bilingual programs
at city schools starting in September, 2016, including, according to the *New
York Daily News*
29 new dual-language programs that will include classes taught in Chinese,
French, Haitian Creole, Arabic, Polish, and Spanish—with English used on
alternating days.

Back in Europe, McCormack hopes her Books For Refugees
<http://sageliteracyconsulting.com/books-for-refugees/> initiative will
help Arabic-language refugees maintain their language and culture while
making their way in a new country, and says it’s mind-blowing how quickly
it’s taken off, how many donations she is receiving with which to buy books
and ship them to refugee centers in the Netherlands.

“What I want to do is so simple,” she says. “Even if I just get the message
out there: that many of these children, some of whom haven’t been in school
for a while now, have parents that probably aren’t even thinking about
reading to them in Arabic. They think: we’re going to get to Holland and
learn Dutch and English and forget all about Arabic. And they shouldn’t do


N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to its
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner or
sponsor of the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who
disagree with a message are encouraged to post a rebuttal, and to write
directly to the original sender of any offensive message.  A copy of this
may be forwarded to this list as well.  (H. Schiffman, Moderator)

For more information about the lgpolicy-list, go to
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/lgpolicy-list/attachments/20160516/5d8a865c/attachment-0001.html>
-------------- next part --------------
This message came to you by way of the lgpolicy-list mailing list
lgpolicy-list at groups.sas.upenn.edu
To manage your subscription unsubscribe, or arrange digest format: https://groups.sas.upenn.edu/mailman/listinfo/lgpolicy-list

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list