Class of 2016: Refugees, Language and Identity

Fares KaramIt took some time. But after a while, Fares Karam, a doctoral student in English Education graduating in 2016, earned the trust of four young Iraqi refugees living central Virginia.

Karam, a native of Lebanon, was interested in discovering how these students were constructing their identities in the face of potential academic and social barriers often faced by students aiming to assimilate into a new culture.

These four Iraqi students had plenty to teach him.  Three middle schoolers and one high schooler, these students began to share with Karam what they were experiencing in school and what they were learning.

“It is amazing to see how resilient and individually unique these students are,” Karam said. “They understand they are refugees; but that is not a primary factor in how they see themselves.”

Karam was specifically interested in how they were developing their identities through writing practices, both in and outside of school.

“Writing is a means for English language learners to regain a sense of agency,” Karam said.

In the school setting, Karam witnessed a teacher combine a values lesson with a writing assignment

“The writing assignment the students were asked to do helped all of the students understand how to resist stereotypes,” Karam said. “This is a great opportunity to improve writing skills and also help students identify both with their own stories and with the stories of their classmates.”

For Karam, the most compelling writing practices were happening outside of school. One student wrote and published narrated videos of themselves playing a video game on YouTube, both in Arabic and English, where they engaged a number of online friends.

“It was impressive to see how these students use their writing to cope with obstacles and to present themselves as how they see themselves,” Karam said.

Educating Syrian and Iranian Refugees

When Fares Karam arrived in the United States five years ago to begin working toward a Ph.D. at the Curry School of Education, he had no idea his research would also take him back to Lebanon to study how language is impacting the education of Syrian refugees.

Because of both the civil war in Syria and the increased activity of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (known as ISIS) in the region, Syrian refugees have been pouring into Lebanon. Currently, Syrian refugees make up more than a third of the Lebanese population.

Fares Karam, whose interest lies in refugee education and pedagogy in English as a second language, understood that integrating Syrian refugees into the Lebanese education system would be tricky. Although Arabic is the national language of both Syria and Lebanon, the Lebanese education system is officially trilingual, including Arabic, English and French.

“There is a unique set of circumstances converging for Syrian refugees in Lebanon,” Karam said. “Lebanese students learn two, sometimes three, languages fluently by the end of secondary school.”

According to Karam, who is a native of Lebanon and completed his master’s degrees there, the Lebanese school system teaches content areas like mathematics and science in French or English, while Syrian schools generally teach these subjects in Arabic.

“This is the unique roadblock,” he said. “Syrian refugees can’t learn math or science in Lebanese schools if they don’t know English. For refugees, that complicates an already challenging situation for them.”

Because of the dramatic increase in the number of refugee students and the language barriers they face, Syrian refugees have organized non-formal education centers with the help of the United Nations and non-governmental organizations.

Karam spent the summer of 2014 in Lebanon researching such education centers in three clusters of Syrian refugees, one in Beirut and two in the Bekaa Valley region, close to the Syrian border. Working on behalf of a Syrian NGO, Karam and his team observed, conducted interviews and reported both what they saw happening in these locations and any recommendations they had to improve the situations there.

“We quickly found that these education centers were staffed almost entirely by Syrian teachers,” said Karam. “This is a great comfort to the students, but it required us to consider some significant questions.”

Chief among them being, “How long will the refugees stay in Lebanon? Should the education centers evolve to look more like the education system in Lebanon or maintain a more Syrian structure? What kind of curriculum would best serve these students’ needs?”

The organization with which he worked, which Karam calls “Salam” – a pseudonym used to preserve participants’ anonymity – has decided to begin working with the teachers to introduce key concepts of mathematics and science in English, with an ultimate goal of expanding English instruction.

“The consensus among Salam staff is that English is important for three reasons,” Karam said. “It is the global medium of communication, an equalizer between Lebanese and Syrian students, and is essential for acquiring future jobs.”

Life After the Curry School

This fall, Karam will begin his role as assistant professor for language, literacy and culture at the University of Nevada at Reno.

In his new position, he hopes to continue following one or more of his Albemarle County students through the rest of their secondary schooling and in to what comes next.  He is also looking forward to continuing his analyzation of online communication among English Language Learners.