The well-being and schooling of syrian refugees

Gris, Sandrine (2018). 'The well-being and schooling of Syrian refugees' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


Since November 2015, Canada has welcomed more than 35,000 Syrian refugees who fled their war-torn country. More than 5,000 of them, sponsored by the private sector or supported by the state, settled in Quebec, mainly in Montreal’s metropolitan area. In terms of education and language classes, the same measures apply to all refugees, whether Syrians, Congolese, Afghani, Columbians, Iraqis. They share the same difficulties, the same obstacle course in regards to immigration, and often the same characteristics and pre-migration trajectories. They are big families, sometimes with a single parent and young kids, that spent long years in refugee camps where they have experienced promiscuity, insecurity, violence and mourning.

            Their path towards integration cannot be disassociated from the fact that they are in exile.

In this very particular context, school becomes the pillar of the resilience of refugee families, who place all their hopes in the schooling of children in their host country. A majority of parents do not know English or French when they settle; while some are educated, many are poorly educated and their children have also been deprived of proper schooling. In July 2015, 53 percent of Syrian school-age children living in Syria, in camps outside the country, or on the road with their families were out of school, according to a study by the Migration Policy Institute (2015). When they arrived in Quebec, these children were at least one or two years behind Quebec children of the same age, not to mention that the majority of adults and more than 50% of children suffer from post-traumatic stress related to the violence they have experienced or witnessed.

            Consequently, the arrival of these particularly vulnerable young people, who bear a heavy burden of difficult experiences, poses great challenges to Montreal schools. Schooling in French, imposed by law 101, is often the first family experience of "friction" with Quebec society, that is to say, interculturation, (Altay Manço, 2008). A few weeks or even just a few days after arriving in Quebec, children aged 4 to 16 begin school in French. For these families begins a new journey in a system and in a language they do not know. In the welcome classes (where they are exclusively taught French), children are guided in their learning of French so that they integrate as quickly as possible regular classes that corresponds to their age and level. However, hosting more than 1,000 children in Montreal's welcome classes to learn French raises local and specific management issues that pose significant challenges. How to apply measures really adapted to refugee children? How could we manage unplanned arrivals of young refugees, and at different times of the school year? What is the best method to teach young people whose original languages ​​are totally unknown where they are hosted? What links can be build between school and families? How is it possible to take into account the history of these young refugees in the evaluation of their school skills? How can their academic success be promoted? What are the training and skills teachers can have to deal with post-traumatic phenomena of students? How would it be possible to design and create an inclusive school open to the entire community?

            The political and practical challenges imposed by the means implemented for the French schooling of Syrian refugees concern not only the education sector but also the municipalities, the health and social services sectors, intercultural and host NGOs, as well as cultural and religious communities. Immigration with ethnocultural, religious and linguistic diversity are integral elements of Quebec's history, collective identity and growth. They also raise important challenges in pluralistic and democratic societies. Adapting the practices of educational institutions to ensure conditions of equity and justice for all learners, including Syrian refugees, is a non-linear process compared to what began a few decades ago with economic immigration.


In order to answer these questions, this qualitative documentary research analyzes, through the capability approach (Sen, 1999), the well-being of Syrian refugees enrolled in French classes and its articulation to the institutional and systemic factors, associated school services, rules and practices.

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