Refugee trauma and the ESL classroom

I originally wrote this three years ago when I was in Northern California, working with a refugee resettlement organization. I spent 3.5 years volunteering there, and during that time, I met more than 200 refugees who were resettled in the Sacramento area. They came from all over the world, but primarily Iraq, Afghanistan (many of whom worked as translators with the U.S. military), Burundi, Bhutan, Nepal, Kenya… the list goes on.

This past Friday, Donald Trump suspended the refugee resettlement program by executive order. Just a few facts, none of which are “alternative” – refugees are defined as people who must flee their home country to escape war, persecution, and violence. Number of refugees that the U.S. pledged to resettle in 2017 following a multiyear vetting process: 110,000. Number of refugees resettled in the U.S. who have committed known acts of terrorism, EVER: 0.

I don’t write well when shaking with emotional rage, but I want to say something, to defend the 200+ people that I knew well. This article was originally published with TESOL International Association’s Refugee Concerns newsletter and it speaks mainly to educators about strategies for dealing with students (such as refugees) who have experienced severe trauma (like many, many refugees).

One final note before the article: the organization I worked with, the International Rescue Committee, was founded at the suggestion of Albert Einstein, a refugee who fled to the U.S. to escape the Third Reich.

 


October 2013

His distress was palpable, evidenced in knotted eyebrows and a subtle tremor that shook throughout his rail-thin body. He grabbed my hand impulsively and put it against his heart so I could share in (or at least understand) his terror. His words were impeded by his lack of language, and whatever English he did have was impeded by his extreme stress. “The men…the room…” he managed to get out with labored breaths.

Only because of an earlier conversation with his caseworker did I know what the problem was: He was a new refugee client, and he had identified himself, at least to the caseworker and the hosting organization, as gay. On his first night in English class, only a few days after he arrived in the United States, he was still terrified to be in a small room with other speakers of his language group, large men who may have appeared similar to his overseas tormentors. I’ve volunteered with this organization for 3 years and learned that if I get a hunch that past trauma is trickling into a situation, I am probably right.

His situation was a unique one, to say the least: refugee, gay, from a conservative country, spoke almost no English, most likely suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or similar. To be dealt a few of those cards would certainly be a challenge, but all of them? I’m no psychologist, and like the majority of English teachers, even those like myself who have a master’s degree in teaching the subject, I’m ill-equipped to deal with this challenge. My program didn’t require or even offer a course in ESL and PTSD, just as they offered very little training outside of teaching for well-equipped classrooms full of literate, economically steady, enthusiastic English learners. Like many other instructors in my situation, I had to gauge my reaction to similar situations with a mix of experience and self- research.

This incident, despite involving a very unique individual, can be compared to many similar ones experienced by ESL instructors who work with refugees or asylum seekers. Stressful outbursts, as in the example given, demonstrate one of the greatest challenges of working with posttrauma populations. Refugees, asylum seekers, and some immigrant groups have a “substantially higher risk than the general population for a variety of specific psychiatric disorders—related to their exposure to war, violence, torture, forced migration and exile and to the uncertainty of their status in the countries where they seek asylum” (Kirmayer et al., 2011, p. E961). Unfortunately, when a refugee or asylum seeker resettles in a new country, past traumas are often exacerbated by the serious psychological stress caused by poor adjustment to the culture of the resettlement country (Schweitzer, Melville, Steel, & Lacherez, 2006). Because ESL teachers often have longer periods of contact with their refugee students than other social service providers (such as resettlement agency case workers), stressful outbursts or other classroom issues, such as interpersonal conflicts, can commonly occur. Classrooms often function as safe zones, “where the students can have the opportunity not only to learn English…but also to learn about and discuss many of the cultural adjustment issues and other facets of their new lives” (Adkins, Birman, Sample, Brod, & Silver, 1999, p. 17). This safe place not only provides a platform for students to learn the language that will assist in their acculturation processes, but it also provides a form of self-expression that “engenders stronger mental health” (Adkins et al.,1999, p. 17)

Many refugees, whether they are clinically diagnosed with suffering from PTSD or other disorders, experience a variety of symptoms caused by the stress and trauma resulting from their past and even ongoing experiences. These factors may be manifested in symptoms such as physical ailments (headaches, backaches, and stomachaches), somatic issues (sleeping in class or complaining of a lack of sleep at night), attention issues, lack of participation in or withdrawal from social interaction, frequent absences, and/or emotional or behavioral issues (Adkins et al., 1999, p. 19). Extensive medical and psychological research has demonstrated that these mental problems are prevalent within the refugee community, but, for a teacher working on a day-to-day basis with these students, the research might not be so important as solutions to the issue.

In the 1999 publication through the Spring Institute, Adkins, Birman, Sample, Brod, and Silver provide an excellent manual that instructs ESL teachers in methods for adapting their classroom pedagogy, methods, and activities to facilitate positive acculturation in response to these mental health issues. But when teachers are faced with outbursts similar to the example presented, they need to be prepared to spontaneously address the problem and help the student to reach a state of calm. To help deal with the effects of PTSD and other stress, emotion, or deeper psychological issues or trauma-related outbursts that manifest themselves in the classroom, teachers have to be proactive about educating and preparing themselves for these incidents, but also in sharing effective techniques and strategies for coping with these issues within the community of practice. In this situation, I followed a protocol that I have used in a variety of similar contexts:

1. Use nonverbal cues to demonstrate compassion and understanding.As refugee English teachers, this is often our default mode. But these situations require an extra measure of compassion: demonstrating empathy with obvious facial expressions (especially for low-level speakers) and a calm, low tone of voice. Horsman (1997) suggests “words and looks of encouragement” (p. 22) over physical contact, as physical boundaries are important to respect and even more difficult to infer in stressful moments.

2. Allow them to be separate from the class. In this situation, I was fortunate that another person could step in and cover the class for a few minutes, which might not be possible in every situation. It is important to help preserve the refugee’s sense of dignity (i.e., not allow others to see his or her distress) and allow them the space to calm down, so it is essential to step outside and away from the trigger. Horsman (1997) noted that refugees dealing with trauma need physical “places to go outside the program when the feelings are ‘too much’ for themselves or for others to deal with in the class or group” (p. 30). Following the incident, I sought to demonstrate to students that they were not “bound” to the classroom and were free to step out if they felt the need.

3. Shift their focus away from what is affecting them. It sounds like something a therapist might caution against, but most teachers, like me, aren’t trained as counselors, and to take on that role could possibly do more harm than good. Revert to what you know you are skilled at: teaching English. In this situation, I took out a copy of the English diagnostic that we used and started to go through it orally with him, effectively shifting his focus away from the situation. This isn’t to say that their experience isn’t valuable or that the teacher is attempting to invalidate the importance of their past. Instead, the teacher is saving those conversations or topics for a more appropriate, less charged environment where students can operate at their own comfort level.

4. Instill confidence. As we went through the very basic material at the start of the test, I made sure to praise him and offer positive reinforcement for everything that he did right, and provide very tempered, occasional correction for his issues. This not only helped his stress subside, but focused him back on the ultimate purpose of the class: to improve his English.

In this particular situation, the pattern that I followed allowed the student to rejoin the class after 20 minutes outside of the room. By the end of class, he was raising his hand to ask questions and even interacting with the men whose presence had caused his panic earlier in the class. With continuing sensitivity to his needs, his teachers can help him and others like him better reach their potential, and move further away from trauma-based outbursts to focus on the positive possibilities that lie ahead. The experience showed me, very clearly, that, as an instructor, I am continually responsible for not only my refugee students’ academic experience but their emotional well-being.

These strategies were gleaned from personal experience and informed by research, but should not be taken as a scientific technique or as one developed by a specialist in trauma. Instead, they are one solution for dealing with stressful outbursts in the moment, keeping the student’s needs first, and helping to maintain their personal dignity and sense of self.

References

Adkins, M. A., Birman, D., Sample, E., Brod, S., & Silver, M. (1999). Cultural adjustment, mental health, and ESL: The refugee experience, the role of the teacher, and ESL activities. Denver, CO: Spring Institute for International Studies.

Horsman, J. (1997). “But I’m not a therapist”: Furthering discussion about literacy work with survivors of trauma. The Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women. Retrieved from http://en.copian.ca/library/research/therapist/1.htm.

Kirmeyer, L., Narasiah, L., Munoz, M., Rashid, M., Ryder, A., Guzder, J., … & Pottie, K. (2011). Common mental health problems in immigrants and refugees: General approach in primary care. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 183(12), 959–967. DOI: 10.1503/cmaj.090292

Schweitzer, R., Melville, F., Steel, Z., & Lacherez, P. (2006). Trauma, post-migration living difficulties, and social support as predictors of psychological adjustment in resettled Sudanese refugees. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 40, 179–187.

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