Syrian Refugee Students in Alberta

As a part of my project I have written a short pamphlet on the basics of what I think a (new) teacher should know about Syrian refugee students in Alberta and how to support them. If you want to know some of the things I have learned over the course of my research, please take a read. If you know a new or soon to be teacher who might benefit, feel free to pass it along to them so they have a small amount of summer reading themselves.

Please click HERE or HERE to go to the pamphlet.


Literature Review

This blog post is short, because all I want to do is point you  towards the literature review I created for this project. Click on this link or this one to go to my literature review, ” A Review of the Literature on The Educational Situation of Syrian Refugee Students With a Focus on Refugee Education Best Practices”.

If there is anything in there you want to use, here is the citation in APA 6:

Dressler, A., Gereluk, D. (2017). A review of the literature on the educational situation of Syrian refugee students with a focus on refugee education best practices. Calgary: University of Calgary. Retrieved from


Lack of Direct Funding for Syrian Refugee Students

This article covers the same topic as this post: the fact that the federal government accepts refugees, but then the provincial government and school boards are wholly in charge of sorting out how education looks from there.

Take a perusal if you would like, but here is a super short recap: in 2015 Canada’s federal Liberal government pledged to accept and resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees. While the federal government mentioned money to support these refugees, that support did not support the schooling of the Syrian refugee children.

According to statistics from the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada in a publicly accessible document named “Alberta – Admissions of Syrian Refugees* by Immigration Category and Family Composition”, over 1000 Syrian refugee families were settled into Alberta between November 4, 2015 – July 31, 2016. The majority of these families had school-aged children that needed to be schooled and accommodated. Most of the families were settled in Calgary and Edmonton.

The Calgary Board of Education reported receiving over 500 Syrian refugee students. Due to the complex needs of this population, the price tag for accommodating them was very high (over 2 million dollars). Refugees are also eligible for school and transportation fee waivers, meaning that these services are provided to them at no cost. Extra teachers to create additional LEAD (Literacy, English, and Academic Development) classes were hired, and the influx put added strain on the district’s intake centre in Kingsland. Since these refugees arrived after September 30th, the funding cut-off date for students, schools received no money for these refugees, neither regular funding, nor funding that took into account their numerous needs. Budgets needed to be changed and balanced in order to find money to help these students at the expense of other initiatives.

I am by no means laying out the facts in this way to support the conclusion that these refugees should not have been accepted. That is an important and valuable promise and I am happy that the federal government made it. Where the planning fell short, however, was in providing government funds to the schools to support the Syrian refugee children within them. Neither the federal nor the provincial government stepped up to fill in the funding gap caused by these students arriving after September 30th. Promises of the government should not be carried out at the expense of local schools. Future integration of refugee populations should address this issue and ensure that refugee students are funded whenever they join Alberta schools.


This week I want to talk a little bit about English Language Learners (ELLs) and how Syrian refugee students are ELLs, but also usually count as Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education (SLIFE) due to fleeing their country as a refugee (DeCapua, 2016). Many immigrants come to Canada as ELLs, and most school systems have practiced, well oiled systems in place to serve them. Students are encouraged to practice literacy in all of their languages, not just English, and are supported along their journey to English proficiency, whether it begins in an intensive English class or in a regular classroom with extra language support and expectations.  Due to the typical ELLs previous school experience and academic support from home, within a few years they are working on the same materials as their Canadian-born, English speaking, peers and are eventually virtually undistinguishable from the other students. These students may not be proficient when they come to Canada, but they are familiar with basic expectations within school and doing academic work within the context of their home country.

The situation for SLIFE is very different than that of ELLs. These Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education come to Canada with either no experiences with school at all, or when they have school experience, it is likely very different from Canadian schools. The majority of the Syrian refugee students that are now in Alberta schools experiences long periods without schooling. In refugee camps and while fleeing survival takes precedence over school.  For older students that means they will be without years of content, as well as behind in literacy and numeracy skills. For younger students that could mean that they have never sat at a desk in a school before. For this whole population the education targeted at them must be more than merely that which targets ELL students. Basic literacy and numeracy skills, skills which ELL students usually have in their native language, need to be at the forefront. The behavioural expectations of Canadian culture and schools need to be kindly and explicitly taught. No teacher should take Canadian culture for granted and always realize that just because that is how we do things here, an alternative method may be what students are used to.

Every child and every student is different, so each situation must take this into account. While the Syrian refugee students are ELL, they also are SLIFE and need to be fully supported according to that. Targeted supports can ensure that these students achieve success.

DeCapua, A. (2016). Building bridges to academic success through culturally responsive teaching. MinneTESOL, Spring(1). Retrieved from


International Refugee Education Law

When starting this project, I had not put much thought into why refugee students should be educated. It seemed only common sense that they should receive a quality education serving their needs, and I though it fit perfectly into the culture and policies of Canada to do so. I had not realized that countries educate refugee students not just out of their feelings of generosity or justice, but rather that many are also bound my legal statutes.

The right of refugee children to education is indeed written into international agreements. The 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees states that countries “shall accord to refugees the same treatment as is accorded to nationals with respect to elementary education” (UNHCR, 2010, p. 24). So if a country educated its citizens in a certain way, then all of the refugees within their border are due to the same treatment. Alberta pledges to teach to every student’s needs and abilities; the same needs to be afforded to Syrian refugee students. Just because a student is a refugee does not mean they deserve any less attention than a regular student. The 1948 Declaration of Human Rights also includes the right to education for refugees (O’Rourke, 2014). This important educational right is essential to the support of Syrian refugees during this conflict (Ficarra, 2017; McCall & Vang, 2012; O’Rourke, 2014; Warner, 2017). The population of Syrian refugee children who have fled Syria need to be equipped to be able to do not only the best for their lives, but also for the future of restoring peace and infrastructure in Syria after the war.

While the legal right to education only calls for the same treatment as nationals of the country receive, the best practice for refugee students includes attending to their specific unique needs. For example, “all students have a legal right to an education in order to succeed in life without requiring them to relinquish their cultural identity” (McCall & Vang, 2012, p. 33). There are various best practices for refugee students, such as trauma- informed pedagogy (, culturally relevant pedagogy, and teaching according to the needs of students with interrupted or limited formal schooling. Syrian refugee children need to be supported and educated so that they are one day able to resettle their country and be successful despite the situation they were born into. Refugee students need help with trauma, language, and culture in their new country.

So in the end, supports for the Syrian refugee students need to go beyond what is called for in the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees or the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights. Just like the rest of the Alberta students that are being taught, these children need to be supported in the unique ways that they need.

Selected Resources:

UNHCR. (2010). Convention and protocol relating to the status of refugees.

O’Rourke, J. (2014). Education for Syrian refugees: the failure of second-generation human rights during extraordinary crises. Albany Law Review, 78(2), 711–738.

Ficarra, J. (2017). Comparative international approaches to better understanding and supporting refugee learners. Issues in Teacher Education, 26(1), 73–85.

McCall, A. L., & Vang, B. (2012). Preparing preservice teachers to meet the needs of Hmong refugee students. Multicultural Perspectives, 14(1), 32–37.

Warner, J. (2017). No Lost Generations: Refugee children and their human right to education, from the Holocaust to the Syrian Civil War.



Common and Academic Language

When addressing teaching Syrian refugee students, I think a basic understanding of some important language concepts is important. So this week I want to write about BICs and CALP. This are two types of language that is useful to differentiate between for EAL (English as an Additional Language) students, and stand for Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. My main resource for this post will be Focus on Content-Based Language Teaching  by Patsy M. Lightbown. This is an old textbook of mine and also a great resource.

These Syrian students need to learn both of these types of language in order to be successful in Canadian schools and communities. BICs – Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills –  is informal communication language between students, say on the playground or in order to invite someone to a birthday party. Without BICs, students’ social integration would greatly suffer. In order to be successful in Canada, children need to fit in and make friends. BICs is the language that allows them to do so.

On the other hand, children also need to development their competency for CALP – Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency – so that they can avoid major struggles in school and ensure their future academic success. Important about this type of language is that it is cognitively demanding. It is also not as common as BICs, it is typically without as much context and more abstract. Many school tasks demand CALP, when students need to compare, contrast, describe, or evaluate. CALP includes using “academic vocabulary, academic sentence types, academic register and interaction style” (p. 51, Lightbown). This type of language is tricky for EAL students because they typically will not often hear it from their peers and it is academic. Their parents likely are struggling with English themselves and are not able to model a mature use of English CALP, which puts these students at a disadvantage compared to the Canadian students who have CALP input from multiple sources.

Fourth-grade girl writingThe biggest impact that these two types of language have on the education of Syrian refugee students is that while both take time to master, one takes much longer than the other. For teachers who are not familiar with the typical progression of an English Learner, this can pose a problem. For students who enter English-speaking school without substantial school beforehand in their first language, they are typically able to acquire BICs in one or two years. This is a fairly short timeframe. Please note, the majority of Syrian refugee students that are entering in Canadian schools qualify as SLIFE (Student with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education) and most definitely count as students without substantial prior schooling.  Mastering CALP is a completely different story than mastering BICs. SLIFE may take five to seven years to gain the academic language skills (CALP) necessary for their age. This is huge. A teacher who is not used to these particular demands of EAL students may witness a child interacting happily and successfully on the playground with friends (BICs) and assume that the student is successfully proficient in English. Later that morning, the very same child may have huge struggles completing a writing task (CALP), which would be confusing when thought of in conjunction with the earlier playground memory in the teacher’s mind. Language learning is a long term goal; students cannot be expected to know all that they need within a year or two in order to be successful in Canada, especially when they had little or no schooling beforehand. Both the attitude of teachers and the availability of funding should take into account that it will take many years for the Syrian refugee students to have the English ability that they require in Canada.

Photos credit: Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

Refugee, Immigrant, or Asylum Seeker?

I want to define a few terms in my blog post this week. I think the difference between immigrant, refugee, and asylum seeker is important, and that is what I will focus on now. This topic came up to me because of its recent importance due to an influx of asylum seekers coming to Canada, and a few personal conversations about this influx that I have had recently.

The concept of refugees is important to begin with because of how they are differentiated from immigrants. Everyone is quite familiar with immigrants. Immigrants decide to move to a new country for various reasons. Perhaps they think the job and economic prospects are better there, they would like their children to grow up somewhere they think will be better, or perhaps they are moving to be closer to family. This situation is quite different from refugees, in a few key ways.  Unlike immigrants, refugees,

“owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” (UNHCR, 2010, p. 14)

Refugees settle into a country not by choice, but by necessity. While they may in the end benefit from the same factors that led immigrants to move, the catalyst is very different. They come to Canada after a long journey of hardships and trauma, in need of a safe place to live and raise their families. One such group coming to Canada are the Syrians fleeing conflict in their country.

Now, it is important to note that the concept of an asylum seeker and a refugee are closely linked, but also not. I believe that due to Canada’s geographic location we have historically received a low number of asylum seekers at our borders and therefore as a population are much less familiar with the term. The citizens of countries surrounding Syria, by contrast, would be more familiar. An asylum seekers is, “someone whose request for sanctuary has yet to be processed” ( according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Recently, Canada has started to have people seeking asylum coming from the United States. Here is an article explaining this in great detail:

The important thing to note about this phenomenon is that when a government pledges to take in a certain number of refugees, asylum seekers are not included in that figure. Asylum seekers come into Canada through a completely different way and are not subjected to the same process that refugees are. Canada cannot control the number of people that appear on foot in Manitoba in the same way that it carefully screens and selects the desired refugees.

That is not to say that asylum seekers do not need help, or should not be let in. After all, all of the refugees that are currently settling themselves into Alberta had to have at one point been asylum seekers themselves. It is merely important to make the distinction between the two groups.  All three groups, immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, come to Canada for specific reasons and merely need to be dealt with using methods appropriate to their specific situation.


UNHCR. (2010). Convention and protocol relating to the status of refugees.


Trauma-Informed Practice

This week I want to get into a bit of the theory behind some of the refugee education programs I read about while gathering data for my literature review. The highlighted framework this week is Trauma-Informed Practice. I have read and heard about it from various sources, but the main source I will be using for this blog post is Bath’s 2008 article titled “The three pillars of trauma-informed care”. This article does not directly use Trauma-Informed Practice for refugee students, but it is certainly valuable for supporting them. Refugee students frequently have experienced complex trauma, which involves ongoing, extended exposure and leads to the breakdown of internal state regulation as well as making children focus primarily on safety instead of growing and learning. Bath intended his framework for domestic children with traumatic backgrounds, but since refugee children frequently have experience complex trauma, they more than fit the bill for needing trauma-informed care.

The three central components of Trauma-Informed Practice are the following:

  • the development of safety
  • the promotion of healing relationships
  • the teaching of self-management and coping skills

Safety: Syrian refugee students are coming from a country filled with war and destroyed infrastructure. They then likely spent years in a refugee camp where safety was not always present. For those who came from refugee camps, which is the majority, their reality was bleak: “the right to grow in safety, the right to nutrition, water, the right to play and development as healthy allround individuals are all rights that are daily denied to the refugees in camps” (p. 1523). When a child has been exposed to treatment such as that during critical times in their development, they are geared towards survival and not the exploration and curiosity that is necessary to learn and grow. A classroom using Trauma-Informed Practice needs to combat that past by providing a consistent, safe, and reliable place for refugee students to learn how to grow and learn again without any threats. Once students realize they are in a safe place they will be able to start exploring and learning.

Relationships: As with not being in a safe place prior to Syrian refugee students’ resettlement in Canada, many of these students will also not have had the opportunity to develop strong, healthy relationships with many adults or peers. Within war children are often abused and mistreated directly, and also witness to adults mistreating other adults. While the parents and teachers of refugee children have their best intentions at heart, the adults in their lives have gone through the same trauma that the children have, and this affects their ability to react to the children fairly and lovingly all of the time. Refugee students will likely not have been able to trust people in their lives and may not come into a Canadian classroom immediately possessing positive feelings for the authority figures there. For example, Ayoub describes in his 2014 dissertation on Somali refugee students in Canada that when students first began schooling in Canada they were afraid to speak up in case they said something wrong, because in the past teachers would beat or ridicule them for wrong answers. In a Trauma-Informed classroom, adults work to create loving, consistent, and healthy relationships with the students. Boundaries and expectations are clearly defined so that students always know where they stand with adults. The adults in these classrooms need to help refugee students relearn how relationships should work, especially how people are expected to treat each other in Canada.

Self-management and coping skills: When children are exposed to extreme, prolonged stress, such as when they are victims are complex trauma, their emotional growth is stunted. Children in these cases are not able to regulate their emotions and stress-levels, leaving them hyper-vigilant and on edge. These students are not in an optimal place to learn because their brains and bodies are too attuned to worrying about survival; their emotions are not under their control. Trauma-Informed Practice should be used to equip students with the skills they need to manage their emotions and responses. Activities that focus on emotions and awareness are important. These activities should include culturally specific skills that Syrian refugee students need to master in Canada. The proper way to sort out disagreements, or how to cope with sad situations are two examples of beneficial skills that should be taught.


None of these components are overly fancy or out of the ordinary. In fact, these three pillars should be present in any classroom. I cannot recall where I heard it first, but the best practices for specific groups with unique needs tend to also just be good teaching practice in general. That is what occurs here. All children should be able to feel safe, develop healthy relationships with others, and learn how to control their emotions. It is just the case that refugee students need this even more than domestic students.



Bath, H. (2008). The three pillars of trauma-informed care. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 17(3), 17–21.

Ayoub, Mohamad Najib, “An Investigation of the Challenges Experienced by Somali Refugee Students in Canadian Elementary Schools” (2014). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 5120.

Jabbar, S. A., & Zaza, H. I. (2014). Impact of conflict in Syria on Syrian children at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Early Child Development and Care, 184(February), 1507–1530.



Community Organizations

This week I want to write about community involvement and partnerships with the community that support refugees and refugee education. I think the first place my mind went when I thought about this project and refugee education was thinking about refugee students in our mainstream school classes, but just as important can be community engagement and involvement. There are benefits that less formal organizations have over schools. These benefits include advocacy, public image, acculturation, and shared responsibility, among others.

As one might imagine, starting all over in a new country is difficult, and one could say it “takes a village” for a refugee family to feel at home and know their way around. Canada is different from Syria in many ways, and these families come here without the cultural capital and knowledge necessary to seamlessly navigate their way through Canadian society. Community organizations can help empower and provide the parents with the information they need to guide their children through the Alberta school system. An example of this working is detailed in Erden 2016, where a group of Turkish women worked with Syrian refugee women to support them in their transition to Turkey. The women from both backgrounds worked together to enroll the refugee children in school and ensure their success. Another important aspect of that organization was advocacy. Working closely with refugee women meant the Turkish women were well able to advocate for the refugee population.

Advocacy is an important part of the necessity for community organizations and partnerships. By having more people make relationships with Syrian refugees, they begin to see the population not as a stereotype or threat, but rather as individuals. Negative stereotypes and economic and terrorist threats can often overshadow the reality that the refugees who seek refuge in our communities are, at the end of the day, just people. No one person embodies the entire stereotype of their group, nor is a stereotype ever created out of merely one person. By working closely with refugees, community members are better able to act as advocates for the population and dispel fear and negative stereotypes. In addition, community organizations  give refugee families the opportunity to make connections and friends.


Based on the literature I have read about various informal educational organizations in a variety of countries, here are the suggestions I have for making a positive impact with a community partnership or organization:

  1. Be weary of the saviour complex. There should be a give and take within the organization. Canadians are not saving the refugees and the refugees are much more than victims. There are lessons to be learned on both sides and no one group is better than the other.
  2. Families should be included as a whole whenever possible. While we are used to educating and helping children, it does not end up being the most beneficial if programs only ever include children. By including the whole family the parents are able to learn skills that will help them to help themselves in the future. Additionally, it is common for children to be put in an awkward position in the family hierarchy because their language skills progress so much fast than their parents’. Including the parents means that they learn language and culture along with their children and this keeps their children out of the position of constantly being cultural brokers.
  3. Make programs with Syrian refugees, not just for them. Make efforts to include refugees and Syrians in the inner workings of programs. Not only does this provide an empowering role for them, but it means the likelihood of fewer cultural clashes and issues and may help to attract a larger audience to the program than if Canadians alone organize it.

It takes a lot to support refugees in their transition to Canada, and the role of informal programs should not be understated. A whole variety of supports are needed. I hope this provided some food for thought, feel free to email me if you have more comments or suggestions about the topic.


Examples of programs:

Cairo, A., Sumney, D., Blackman, J., & Joyner, K. (2013). Supporting Refugee and Migrant Children with F.A.C.E. Time. The Education Digest, 79(2), 61–65. Retrieved from

Erden, O. (2016). Building bridges for refugee empowerment. Journal of International Migration and Integration, (18), 1–17.


Ferfolja, T., & Vickers, M. (2010). Supporting refugee students in school education in Greater Western Sydney. Critical Studies in Education, 51(2), 149–162.



Global alliance institute; Global alliance institute unveils its girls truth seekers education project for Syrian refugee girls. (2016). Politics & Government Business, 29. Retrieved from



Hos, R. (2016). Education in Emergencies: Case of a Community School for Syrian Refugees. European Journal of Educational Research, 5(2), 53–60.

Lai, C. (2017). Strands of support. Education Canada, 10–15. Retrieved from

Tran, D., & Hodgson, B. R. (2015). Meeting the needs of refugee and immigrant students and families in a culturally responsive way. Voices in Urban Education, (41), 7–15.

UNICEF. (2017). No Lost Generation Initiative: January to December 2016. Retrieved from


Photo credits:

Community Rental: LOOKER Power Hour by

Community by

Public Opinion and Advocacy – The Example of “That” Fight in Red Deer

One of the themes I have been thinking about lately is how administration either advocates, or doesn’t, for refugee students and how advocacy and relationships affects the public opinion of refugees. Realistically speaking, refugees make up a small number in Canada and yet the issue of their presence in Canada is highly politicized. Many people are unlikely to have had contact in person with Syrian refugees and this makes it easy for rumors and negative stereotypes to prevail. Since I have been thinking about this lately, the news story regarding a fight involving high school aged Syrian refugee students and Canadian students stood right out as an example.

If you haven’t heard about the story, you can read an account of it here:

In my opinion, the situation sounds pretty typical for a high school. Tensions ran high and  a few fights broke out, and then everyone involved was punished. There was no preferential treatment of either refugee students or Canadian students. However, when a video of one of the fights got posted online the comments turned sour very quickly and misinformation spread. Protests were even held at the school, and that is the factor that required police presence. Those at the protest are reportedly not even linked to the school, meaning that it was not those wronged by the dispute, but rather those acting upon the rumors and wanting to make a scene.

What makes me happy to hear is that the administration of the school acted as advocates and the students within the school made moves toward deescalating the tension. The principal is on record setting the story straight and this is important. When newcomers enter a school it is crucial that there is attention paid to the public image and advocating for these newcomers who may not be given a fair rep. It is not fair to the general Syrian refugee population if the two Syrian students involved in the fights are suddenly heralded as the example of how this whole group acts. These students were not being treated as just teenagers making mistakes, but rather as cultural examples, all of the negative stereotypes and misinformation surrounding their situation was placed onto them, and by extension, all Syrian refugees.

Refugee students face many challenges because of their past. They bring with them language struggles, disruption in their identity and living situation, and trauma. On top of that, these students in question are attending high school, and time when we typically cut teenagers a bit of slack and expect them to make mistakes. Unfortunately, because of their highly politicized position, this altercation resulted in a wave of discrimination. As the administration and school did, it is important that those in the situation advocate for the refugee students and attempt to change the negative public opinion.

This article talks more about the reaction of the school:

I guess the main take-away from this is that while there are likely to always be people who are content to focus on negativity and spread rumors, whenever possible those Canadians who are in the position of having first-hand knowledge of Syrian refugees must work to advocate for the refugees in their schools.


Taylor, S., & Sidhu, R. K. (2012). Supporting refugee students in schools: What constitutes inclusive education? International Journal of Inclusive Education, 16(1), 39–56.

McCall, A. L., & Vang, B. (2012). Preparing preservice teachers to meet the needs of Hmong refugee students. Multicultural Perspectives, 14(1), 32–37.

MacNevin, J. (2012). Learning the way: Teaching and learning with and for youth from refugee backgrounds on Prince Edward Island. Canadian Journal of Education, 35(3), 48–63.

Stewart, J. (2017, March). A culture of care and compassion for refugee students: Creating a state of nhân đạo. Education Canada. Retrieved from