As the first in a series of posts in Ajyal's Blog, Awatef Sheikh, Ajyal's CEO, interviewed Tala Shurrab - a Palestinian from Gaza who currently lives and works in London and who has recently finished her MPhil degree inPsychology and Educationfrom the University of Cambridge. Shurrab's research looked into theacademic and psychological resilience amongst Syrian refugee students in Jordan. Her research questionsfocused ondifferences in psychological and academic resilience between Jordanian and Syrian refugee students in addition to individual and socio-ecological factors that play a role in enhancing refugee students’ psychological and academic resilience.
Syrian Refugees, education and resilience
Awatef Sheikh (AS): Tell us about your research and why you chose to focus on this subject/research question?
Tala Shurrab (TS) : Coming from a warzone myself, I have always been interested in observing and studying warzone and refugee contexts. As I started to read more research and articles, I realised the gap in understanding the needs and the realities of such groups alongside the scarcity of non-western researchers who adopt culturally sensitive constructs and measures to study such contexts.As such, I decided to study academic and psychological resilience amongst Syrian refugee pupils in my MPhil dissertation. Syrian refugees are not only exposed to multiple forms of adversity but also to continuous adversity. In other words, Syrian refugees endure a series of traumatic events that begins with their forced displacement and continues in their host communities. Though these traumatic experiences are ongoing, refugees’ abilities and host environments are not fixed nor predetermined. Therefore, it is important to refrain from deficit-based approaches in studying refugees and start adopting strength-based approaches. I believe it is only then that change can be finally seen.
AS: Your research concludes that schooling can protect Syrian refugees against adversity, can you tell us more?
TS: A wide variety of research supports that environment plays a significant role in enhancing resilience by offering a nurturing and safe place alongside psychosocial support. Generally, children and adolescents spend most of their day at school where they develop strong feelings of belonging and purpose and build social networks with peers and teachers. All of these facilitate a healthy identity development.
For refugees, school can be the only stable and safe place to navigate in order to form an autonomous identity and form connections. Usually, the camps or the houses where refugees are living are temporary, easily threatened by external means and the family is usually struggling to make ends meet. This means when the child is at home, they are faced with different responsibilities to satisfy their basic needs (food, shelter) which makes it hard for the child to connect with themselves and others. When the child is at school however, it is their opportunity to form meaningful connections, feel safe and derive a sense of purpose.Most importantly, school protects students against adversity as it offers many windows of opportunity if refugees are given that chance.
AS: Interestingly your study found that Syrian adolescent refugees in Jordan scored higher on academic and psychological resilience than adolescents from other host countries. How do you explain that?
TS: As I mentioned in my study, there are many conceptualisations used for psychological and academic resilience, though most research – despite the different operationalizations of resilience –agrees that refugees are more likely to be resilient than not. For example, psychological resilience in this research was conceptualised as adolescents’ ability to show a sense of agency and purpose while having a strong belief in oneself, whilst academic resilience is about having a goal-oriented mindset and motivation to master tasks. Other research however could define academic resilience to be based on academic performance and psychological resilience as subjective well-being.
There could be many reasons behind Syrian adolescent pupils’ higher scores on resilience than natives. For psychological resilience, Syrian refugee pupils in this study are assumed to have faced moderate levels of stressors in their home countries as most of them arrived shortly after the civil war had started. Taking from this perspective, this research aligns with other findings to conclude that moderate stressors are not overwhelming yet are sufficient to prepare refugees for future stressors and increase their sense of purpose and determination. These children might feel grateful their lives had not been severely affected by the war and that they were able to secure education in their host country unlike many others. On the other hand, Jordanian adolescents may not have been exposed to significant levels of adversity like Syrian refugees and thus are not required to exert control or derive a sense of purpose from things that are perceived as a crucial part of development.
For academic resilience, the main reason behind this is that this construct was measured by pupils’ goal driven attitude and motivation which can be more reflected in refugees as their education is constantly being threatened unlike natives. As Syrian pupils represent a minority in secondary schools (UNHCR, 2019), this low enrolment percentage can possibly mean that refugee pupils always feel the need to show improvement in their skills and work hard to ensure their place in the classroom as they are vulnerable to losing current and subsequent educational opportunities.
AS: You also look at identity, social connections and feelings of belonging as key factors in developing resilience for this age group, can you elaborate more and tell us about the findings of your study regarding this?
TS: According to the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, adolescence is marked by the developmental task to solve identity and role confusion crisis. During adolescence, individuals strive to construct their own unique sense of identity and find the social settings where they can belong and establish meaningful relationships. For an adolescent who is deprived of their basic needs of safety and freedom, these same factors become the main source to enhance resilience aka their sense of purpose and agency. In fact, the study supported this notion as school and home related factors explained the most variance in both psychological and academic resilience amongst Syrian refugees.
AS: How important are school approaches and practices in enhancing and nourishing resilience?
TS: One of the most significant findings to emerge from this study is that education does indeed provide a collective sense of meaning and purpose for refugees. In fact, schools could be one of the first and most influential systems that young refugees interact with after resettlement, so it can be expected that school connectedness plays an important role in the wellbeing of displaced youth. If school approaches and practices are directed towards understanding and improving refugees’ wellbeing and academic attainment, this will definitely support adolescents’ autonomy and educational success.
AS: You also looked at the teacher-student relationship and the teacher’s role in building resilience and enhancing academic achievements?
TS: In the study, the teacher-student relationship was a significant contributor of both dimensions of resilience. In fact, teachers can also share the role of a stable and warm attachment figure which reduces the effects of adversity. Thisalso suggests that teachers’ responsiveness to students’ educational needs can be more important than the school environmentitself; a supportive teacher can offer a safe space to practice agency and strengthen students’ self-efficacy despite the infrastructural challenges. Other research also confirms that a positive teacher relationship is particularly important among displaced pupils.
Teachers can also enhance students’ self-efficacy. When the narrative of academic success is shifted from being merely focused on performance and grades to include students’ motivation to learn and master tasks, I believe this can dramatically improve students’ academic experience and success.
AS: You had some reservations about conceptualisation used for resilience, why is that?
TS: Most research focusing on resilience usually adopts a western approach or operationalizations based on western findings which dismisses the culture and other forms of resilience adopted by non-western communities. For instance, measuring psychological resilience by taking into account subjective wellbeing only (feelings of content and life satisfaction) ignores adolescents’ natural tendency to adapt and the religious and social pressures to only express satisfaction and gratefulness despite harsh circumstances.
Additionally, when measuring academic potential or resilience, most studies focus mainly on performance and attainment to falsely conclude that refugees are usually more academically incompetent. This is a misattributed perspective that neglects the environment in which the refugee student learns. When the classroom is crowded with students, and when teachers and schools are not responsive nor well-equipped, students are going to struggle to succeed academically despite their capabilities. The shortage of qualified teachers and staff in schoolswhich refugees attend significantly diminishes opportunities to use the education system as a means of social mobility and poses challenges to transform motivation into performance when teaching quality is not inclusive of refugees.
AS: What do you consider as the most significant finding of this study and why?
TS: This research has concluded two important findings. First, adolescent refugees showed higher academic and psychological resilience than natives. An implication of this is that exposure to adversity is not only hindering but can give rise to growth and discovery when exposed to moderate levels of stress, and when psychosocial support services are available. This finding informs policy and further research to look more into the strengths rather than the deficits that refugees can acquire due to traumatic experiences (like gender and age of arrival). The results of the study provide additional evidence to support the notion that the availability of resources in the ecological environment (e.g., school and home) interact with adolescents’ vulnerability in the face of adversity to provide growth and resilience. Additionally, resilience, here, did not focus on resilience as a cluster of individual traits in vacuum but rather it was socially and culturally contextualized. Studies that focus on individual’s innate traits and abilities outside of their social and cultural context can be very harmful as this can reinforce governance policies and discriminatory decisions that deny certain groups of refugees’ access to education.
AS: While most of the focus is on emergency support for refugees, how important do you think academic research is to better support refugee communities?
TS: I believe most emergency support only considers the humanitarian needs of refugees whilst neglecting the autonomy and the wide array of characteristics and needs refugees have. I do not say that shelter and food are not important but equally important are the tools and the psychosocial and academic support for refugees. When such tools and opportunities are available, refugees do not have to spend the rest of their lives depending on external support. Academic research can facilitate this by appropriately observing the context in which refugees live and by assessing the ways in which refugees can further develop and prosper.
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