The untapped superpowers of refugee children

Children whose native tongue is English or Western European are praised for their bilingualism but those who speak other languages are not.

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Olga Mecking NewsMavens, Europe
The untapped superpowers of refugee children - NewsMavens
A sibling of Istarlin Hussein, an 18 year old refugee from Mogadishu, and who speaks English, Swahili and Somali fluently, poses for a photograph at their shelter in Kakuma Camp, Kenya, on Friday, July 13 2018. Kate Holt / eyevine

Syrian parents in the Netherlands are setting up unofficial weekend schools for their children so that they can learn Arabic.

Refugee parents have many reasons to make sure the children are familiar with their culture. “For us, Arabic is a very important language, it’s the Quran language. And we want all of our children to be able to read the Quran. Because we feel like Arabic is a big culture and we have to be proud of it,” says Dima Najjar, a psychologist from Syria who gives workshops on active learning to Arabic schools.

Moreover, Muslims parents, like most migrant parents, want continuity in the way they’re raising their children.

“They want the children to link up with their own culture and religion, in addition to being able to being integrated into the host society,” explains Trees Pels, a Professor of Behavioral and Movement Sciences at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and a Senior Researcher at the Verwey-Jonker Institute, who does research on raising children in a multi-ethnic society.

In countries like the Netherlands, which are rooted in the Christian tradition but have become increasingly secularized, “there is very little infrastructure for Muslim parents to support them in this aim of raising their children with their religion, culture, and background of origin,” says Pels. That’s why parents seek other ways to delegate parts of the moral, religious, and cultural education of their children to Arabic schools.

Research tells us that children who speak at least two languages have better cognitive skills, and improved concentration. Multilingual kids also may get higher IQ scores than their monolingual peers, and it’s important to remember that speaking two or more languages is a feat all in itself. Moreover, Ruth van Reken’s research on Third Culture Kids (TCK) (the first culture stems from the parents’ passport country, the second culture stems from the countries the child has grown up in, and the third culture comes from this mobile way of life) showed that children raised “in between worlds” are more tolerant, open-minded, and much better at communicating with people from different backgrounds. In fact, she sees these children as a “petri dish for understanding others in a changing world.”

But it seems that while all languages and cultures are equal, some languages and cultures are more equal than others.

In the present political atmosphere, governments all over Europe are worried that refugees may not be willing to integrate and become contributing members of the host society.

But while concerns about proper integration mostly affect refugees and immigrants, children whose native tongue is English or another Western European language are often praised for their bilingualism and ability to move between cultures. Children whose languages are not considered prestigious or useful are often told that their culture and language are not worthy of interest or maintenance. Similarly, Western children who live abroad are referred to as TCKs, or Third Culture Kids. But refugees and immigrants are seen as a burden on their host societies, their impressive multilingual and multicultural skills going unnoticed.

“There is a political divide, so there is a big group of people who resist developments like the Arabic schools. People are afraid that it is an obstacle to children’s integration, and believe that all efforts should be directed at children learning the Dutch language and being able to do well at school and the labor market, having Dutch friends,” explains Pels.

And the Netherlands is not the first country where this is the case.

In July this year, Denmark introduced a new law specifying that Muslim children under the age of one would be considered “ghetto children” and will be required to attend training in “Danish values,” including a Danish daycare where they will learn about Christmas, Easter, and the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. The German alt-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has coalesced around the wave of anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiments in Germany, and all over Europe. While these groups are seemingly concerned with “integration,” what they really mean is “assimilation”.

“There is a difference between integration in scientific literature, and integration in society at large. It means “double loyalty”. But assimilation is the attitude that asks people to get rid of their past. So, we are talking about assimilation,” she says.

And this is exactly the wrong approach, according to Pels.

“There is a theory that what you invest in one side, you subtract from the other. [That w]hen you invest in continuity with where you came from, this distracts from possibilities for the children to be able to integrate in society at large. And this is scientifically wrong,” she says, stressing that there is no scientific foundation for the political idea that people should ignore their own background and identity.

In fact, cultural, religious, and linguistic continuity in children’s upbringing is crucial to their mental wellbeing.

“You want your children to link up with where they came from and where they’re going to. Both are very important.There is a lot of research that points in a different direction, that children who are able to be loyal to both sides grow up more easily, and more effectively, and have better mental health, do better at schools, do better emotionally,” she explains.

Most refugees in the Netherlands have received permits limited to five years, and after that they may face the choice of either staying or going back to Syria. Sending their children to Arabic schools is just another way for the parents to keep the language and culture alive as they may be going back when their permits expire. But this also creates some confusion among refugees who are uncertain about their future.

“There are so many rules and regulations that may be contradictory. You may stay, you may not stay. You’re welcome, you’re not welcome. You get a permit but when you do not fully assimilate you’re not welcome. But there is a discrepancy between your juridical right and the feeling that you are a Dutch citizen like anybody else. That you are accepted as a person,” says Pels.

The focus on assimilation so present in current European policies stresses the importance of learning the language, behaviors and cultural norms, but this approach may actually backfire.

“If you want the refugee to be active in your society, you have to save his background, not delete it. Because if you do this, he will be without a background. He will belong to nothing. Because he will never feel like a Dutch man. I will never, ever feel like a Dutch woman. And the Dutch society, they are welcoming, but they won’t consider us as Dutch people. So how can you ask me to delete my background? Or delete my language,” states Najjar.

One of the reasons immigrant parents seem to distance themselves from the mainstream culture is the fact that many experience discrimination and micro-aggressions on a daily basis.

“Yesterday, I was in a meeting with the teacher of my daughter. And we were discussing about my daughter participating in an international competition for Arabic reading in Dubai. And the teacher was telling me, ‘it’s too much for her, she’s here now. She doesn’t have to participate in that kind of Arabic competition, it will make the learning of Dutch more difficult for her,’” recalls Najjar.

Many immigrant and refugee parents are told by teachers, doctors, and members of the society to speak the majority language, such as Dutch, to their children, even though there is no evidence that this approach is effective. But when the parents speak to their children in a language they struggle expressing emotions in, they may create a distance between themselves and their children.

“Then the children miss the chance of knowing their parents very well, of knowing their identity. There will always be a distance, they can’t really touch each other, because the parent withholds an important part of his or herself,” explains Pels.

Another issue with the other-language schools is the fact that the level is not high, and most teaching methods are very traditional. Therefore,children may be reluctant to attend such schools, especially if they experienced the more modern, active-learning-focused approach of Dutch schools.

“It’s not too difficult and not too detailed. It’s just to have the Arabic language and make them able to read and to write and that’s it. I’m not sure that they have a high level. We have to offer these schools program[s] for the high level, not for the basic level.” Moreover, most of these schools happen on the weekends, and it may be hard for children to understand why they have to go to school when everyone else is outside playing.

That’s why Najjar, who is a trained psychologist, offers workshops designed to help Arabic school teachers introduce more modern, active learning methods to help their students have more fun learning Arabic.

The idea that Muslims don’t have a place in European society does not hold-up against research.

A study done by the Bertelsmann Foundation, a non-profit think tank devoted to strengthening transatlantic relationships, showed that Muslims were very well integrated into their host societies by the second generation at the latest, thus rendering most fears about a lack of integration moot.

In fact, a study performed by the European Agency for Fundamental Rights showed that Muslims often had higher levels of trust in political institutions of their host countries and were more tolerant and open-minded than the general population. Research also shows that refugees thrive when their cultural, linguistic, and religious background is accepted in the host society.

“The refugee has a lot of problems and you push him all the time to speak Dutch, speak Dutch. But when you provide him with something related to his background, he will be more satisfied, more active,” says Najjar.

“And we know that integration, which means loyalty to your own background, to where you came from and loyalty to where you’re going to […] is the best strategy,” echoes Pels.

To get the most out of these multicultural powers of refugee children, a lot of work is needed. While according to Trees Pels, it’s not the job of the government to make sure that refugees connect with their own cultural background, at least there should be much less pressure on assimilation, and much more acceptance of multiple languages, cultures, and passports because paradoxically, this may help them feel much more at home -- and make them more willing to participate in mainstream society.

Moreover, there is a lot parents can do. Among other things, according to Najjar, they should speak Arabic to their children, and seek support for the minority languages and culture in the form of schools, tutors, and other speakers of that language.

Teachers can help their minority language students by learning to pronounce their names correctly, being respectful of their cultural background, and refraining from hurtful comments such as “you should speak Dutch at home.”

At the same time, European governments should recognize that Europe is becoming increasingly multi-ethnic, and that it also now includes Muslims. And finally, it’s time to acknowledge and make use of the amazing multicultural skills of refugee children.

Last year, Ruth van Reken started to use the term Cross-Cultural Kid (or CCK), and defined this as “a person who has lived in -- or meaningfully interacted with -- two or more cultural environments for a significant period of time during [their] developmental years.” This definition doesn’t just include refugee children (which the original Third Culture Kid label did not), but also accepts that the world is becoming increasingly globalized, mixed, and less homogenous.

“Migration is not a [rare] phenomenon anymore. It has always been there, since we’re humans, we migrate. And now that is even more the case. And we have to deal with the ambivalence, with the fact that language and norms differ […]. We have to learn to deal with that,” says Pels.

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