Exploring the Special Needs of African Refugee Children in U.S. Schools

By Tadesse, Selamawit; Hoot, James et al. | Childhood Education, August 15, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Exploring the Special Needs of African Refugee Children in U.S. Schools

Tadesse, Selamawit, Hoot, James, Watson-Thompson, Ocie, Childhood Education

Unlike most immigrants, who come to host countries after being granted legal permanent residency, refugees are forced to leave their homelands, often abruptly, due to threats to their personal safety. Refugees enter their host countries with no prior arrangements in place (e.g., housing, financial support of relatives, opportunities to start studying the local language) to assist them in the process of relocating. Perhaps one of the most important issues for refugee families is how to ease the transition to the new nation for their loved ones, especially their children.

African refugees constitute one-third of the world's refugee population (InterAction, 2002) and many are now resettling in the United States. In 2007 alone, approximately 50,000 refugees settled in the United States. Of these, more than 17,000 were African (Hoefer, Baker, & Chertoff, 2008). Coming from different family structures and cultural backgrounds, these refugees bring diverse values and practices--especially with regard to education. Yet school is one of the most important, primary points of contact with the host community for refugees. Research that examines educational issues involved in these refugees' resettlement experiences is lacking. Thus, it is little wonder that teachers face day-to-day challenges in their efforts to adequately meet the education needs of African refugee children. Teachers need more information about the educational values and experiences that young African refugee children bring into their classrooms. Likewise, African refugee parents would benefit from guidance about the inner workings of the U.S. school system.

This article will share knowledge gained through a study of the views of African refugee parents and Head Start teachers regarding the early education of African refugee children in American schools (Tadesse, 2007). The authors also discuss how teachers of young children can more effectively collaborate with increasing numbers of African refugee families.


This article is based on individual narratives of four African refugee mothers and three female Head Start teachers in Buffalo, New York. The participating mothers (pseudonyms are used) were Charity (Liberia), Jemila (Sudan), Seida (Somalia), and Amarech (Ethiopia). All of the participants spoke and understood English well. The African refugee mothers fled their countries due to war or ethnic discrimination, lived in temporary asylum countries for 2-10 years, and resettled in the United States in 2005. The four participants were between 25-45 years old; two were married, two were single; and each has 1-2 young children who attend Head Start in Buffalo, New York. Their educational background ranges from high school to university education.

The Head Start teachers included (pseudonyms) Sophia (Asian), Tamara (white), and Rosemary (white). All of the teachers had bachelor's or master's level education, had worked as teachers of young children for over two years, and had African refugee children in their classrooms. All requisites for human subject privacy protection were met. The authors used semistructured, open-ended questions in the interviews. The interview questions themselves were used in the coding and analysis process (Glasne, 1999).


Teaching Methods and Curriculum: Parents' Views

African refugee parents and Head Start teachers differed in their views regarding how very young African refugee children should be taught in schools. The teachers supported and practiced a play-based, child-centered teaching and learning approach, as advocated by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009). The teachers defined play as the primary educational medium for children's learning and development. Thus, the teacher's role in supporting such play was to serve as a facilitator in the classroom. Paramount to this role was providing (and taking away, at times) materials that supported higher level thinking and problem solving through the play process.

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Exploring the Special Needs of African Refugee Children in U.S. Schools


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