Education & Training
October 20, 2023

Shifting aspirations: Young Syrian refugees’ experience in Canada

Countries that grant permanent asylum to young refugees should ensure education programmes meet their specific needs, or risk the effects of their alienation. That’s the warning from leading educationalist Ratna Ghosh of McGill University in Montreal, Canada. In groundbreaking research, Dr Ghosh looks at young Syrian refugees’ experience of Quebec’s adult education system. Despite the Quebec government’s efforts to integrate them, the system fails to allow refugees to fulfil their aspirations and integrate them into society.

Canada has an impressive record of welcoming migrants, including resettling more than 74,000 Syrians between 2015 and 2020. However, new research warns there is a gap between policy and practice: the country welcomes refugees, but it risks paying a high price if the education system fails to help them integrate into society.

A first of its kind, the study looks at the experience of young adult Syrian refugees in the province of Quebec. Led by Ratna Ghosh from Montreal’s McGill University – one of Canada’s leading educationalists and an expert in multicultural education – it focuses on refugees’ education, which many see as the route to building new lives.

In Quebec, refugees aged up to 16 can enrol in school and progress through the traditional education system to gain qualifications for higher education or employment. Yet refugees aged over 16 – the age at which compulsory schooling ends – have to enrol in adult education, which has different objectives and is designed around the needs of adults who want to upskill or had previously dropped out of school.

Dr Ghosh’s study shows how adult education offers neither the teaching and educational resources, nor the support services and learning environment that refugees require. This matters not only to refugees, who may leave education because it fails to meet their aspirations, but also to the state, which spends considerable resources on their education.

A particular feature of refugees’ experience in French-speaking Quebec is that most students must first learn French in order to attend class.

Power and racism

Dr Ghosh’s findings are based on interviews with refugees and adult education practitioners. Researchers set out to capture people’s experience and identify ways of improving refugees’ education. They also wanted to identify strategies and resources to help educators working with refugees, and make recommendations for policymakers to ensure refugees are integrated into society.

The research is grounded in two academic theories: migration theory, which considers refugees’ agency, aspirations, and capabilities as drivers of human mobility and social change; and critical race theory, which looks at the relationship between power and racism, on the understanding that race shapes individuals’ economic prospects as well as national policies.

Hopes dashed

The study finds that, before fleeing Syria, interviewees were ambitious and some hoped to study for professions such as law or medicine. Many settled in Canada after years of disruption and little schooling, as they transited from one temporary asylum country to another. Despite still having aspirations when they started adult education in Quebec, refugees soon became frustrated because they had to learn in a different language and in a different way.

In Syria, education is teacher-led and pupils learn by rote, but in Canada adult education is self-directed. Students learn at their own pace, and study individual modules, which they must pass one at a time. As a result, refugees reported finding Quebec’s adult education system difficult, not least because it took a long time to gain the qualifications they required.

Students also found it hard to meet family expectations and said that their parents underestimated the challenges they faced. They felt that friends who had stayed in Syria or resettled elsewhere progressed faster, and this affected their self-esteem. Because of this, some migrants lowered their career ambitions, and others quit education altogether in order to find employment to help their families.

Many interviewees hoped that education would allow them to socialise with other students and in this way integrate into the community. However, this did not happen, mainly because the other students were older and had different objectives.

Marginalised populations

Educators also recognised that learning in French, in a self-directed style, was challenging for the refugees. They noted the responsibility and duty students felt towards their parents and that fear of letting their parents down aggravated their sense of failure. It also led to some refugees working full-time as well as studying, leaving them too tired to learn.

Refugees are a marginalised population trying to fit into an adult education system that is itself marginalised.

Practitioners were particularly concerned by the psychological problems associated with students’ migration journeys. They found that many were unwilling to admit to trauma, though it was evident through their reactions to things like sudden noises. Educators said they were not trained to support students, and one reported that, in addition to concern for students’ psychological wellbeing, they were worried about whether their families could afford food.

Failure to provide the right kind of education leaves students feeling anxious and hopeless, but also wastes resources and threatens refugees’ integration into wider society.

Job insecurity for staff and lack of funding were additional problems. Interviewees said the adult education sector was already the ‘poor relation’ of Canada’s education system, and offered neither the educational resources nor the support services young refugees require. The study describes refugees as ‘a marginalised population trying to fit into an adult education system that is itself marginalised.’

Lost generation

The researchers find that Quebec’s adult education system fails refugees from non-Western cultures who have not finished secondary school and are unfamiliar with self-directed learning. The refugees interviewed had agency, ability, and aspirations, but faced structural barriers to gaining qualifications, despite needing these for higher education and even minimum wage jobs.

Dr Ghosh warns that, without intervention, young adult refugees risk becoming a ‘lost generation’. This matters for both refugees and the state. Failure to provide the right education left students feeling anxious and hopeless, wasted valuable resources, and threatened refugees’ integration into wider society.

Policy and practice

One of the study’s recommendations is that government departments should collaborate to help refugees navigate adult education. It also suggests greater attention should be paid to refugees’ mental health, and that more support should be given to help with self-directed learning.

Other proposals include providing opportunities for students to discuss their experience and meet socially, including opportunities to practise French by meeting people in the local community. Above all, more funding should be provided to ensure refugees receive social justice, as well as equal and equitable access to lifelong education.

Without changes to the system, Dr Ghosh warns that there will continue to be a gap between Canada’s policy in welcoming refugees and its practice in providing the education they need to build new lives and integrate into society.

Dr Ghosh explains, ‘The problem for many young refugees in Quebec is that they have aged out of the school system and been placed in adult education. This fails to meet their needs because it is designed for those who have dropped out of education and are looking for a second chance.’

Dr Ghosh adds, ‘Many immigrants are intelligent and motivated to do well. They should be considered as an asset, but there is a clash between their culture at home and the culture they experience in class. Adult education doesn’t consider refugees’ backgrounds. What is needed is a curriculum that is specifically related to refugees’ needs.’

This feature article was created with the approval of the research team featured. This is a collaborative production, supported by those featured to aid free of charge, global distribution.

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