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Volume 18, Number 5
September/October 2002

How Schools Can Help Refugee Students

Many schools are waking up to the impact post-traumatic stress disorder has on refugee students from war- and famine-wracked lands


Johnny Brewch, a stocky 15-year-old with a quick smile and tangle of silver chains around his neck, tries to concentrate as his teacher writes President Franklin D. Roosevelt's name on the blackboard. Most of the students in Johnny's social studies class at the Nathan Bishop Middle School in Providence, RI, jot the words in their notebooks. But the 8th grader fidgets, impulsively hopping in and out of his chair.

After fleeing a brutal civil war in his native Liberia, Johnny now struggles in a school system that is under-equipped to deal with him and the thousands of refugees who have settled here in recent years. In addition to newcomers' typical challenges—grasping a strange language, fitting into new social circles, and learning a different culture's customs—refugee children often contend with a host of psychological problems.

Johnny still remembers seeing people killed in the street. "Sometimes when I sit and think, it bothers me,'' he says in his thickly accented English. "I dream about how they killed. I dream how they cut people's hands off.''

Because they have usually witnessed terrible violence, many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that can produce flashbacks, sleep disorders, depression, and emotional numbing. They also are more likely to join gangs and abuse drugs and alcohol. Many arrive from places like Afghanistan and Somalia having lost one or both parents, and they frequently have problems at home, including physical abuse.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


Also by this Author

    For Further Information

    For Further Information

    J. Garbarino, K. Kostelny, and N. Dubrow. No Place to Be a Child: Growing Up in a War Zone. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998.

    S.J. Grosse. "Children and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: What Classroom Teachers Should Know.'' Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Teaching and Teacher Education, 2001 (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. 2001-01).

    C.D. Johnson and Sharon K. Johnson. Building Stronger School Counseling Programs: Bringing Futuristic Approaches into the Present. Greensboro, NC: ERIC Counseling and Student Services Clearinghouse, 2002.

    Northwest Regional Education Laboratory. Improving Education for Immigrant Students: A Resource Guide for K-12 Educators in the Northwest and Alaska. Portland, OR: Author, 1998.

    The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees offers curriculum and teaching resources for teaching about and for refugees.