Understanding the Journeys of Somali Refugee Youth

© Copyright 2015 Corbis Corporation

Sirad Shirdon

In the past few weeks, as media coverage has been dominated by refugees and migrants arriving in Europe, my thoughts returned to Somali refugee youth I met back in December 2012. In my work with a local elementary school in Nairobi, Kenya I was requested to give a motivational talk to the mostly refugee student population. In preparation for my talk, the school’s principal painted a harrowing portrait of the day to day challenges faced by her students. One of the tragic realities was that many of the students were risking their lives to make an often dangerous journey to Yemen, Europe and beyond. Tragically, many of these youth do not survive the journey, often being smuggled into the different countries via human traffickers. Those who survive the journey are often met with the harsh reality of deportations, and detentions. In 2012, the migrant issue had not yet exploded as it has in recent weeks (see Kirchgaessner, 2015 and Kingsley, Bonomolo & Kirchgaessner, 2015).

Following the talk, a group of students gathered around me as the school’s principal, informed me of the extraordinary narratives of some of her students. One student, she pointed out, had just returned from a failed attempt to seek asylum in Europe. The student in question spoke of dangerous boat trips, and eventually getting caught by authorities in Libya, only to be deported back to Kenya. Next, the principal introduced me to three young women. All three women were refugees, with strong grades; yet these students would be unable to continue their education, if a donor did not step up to support their school fees (while elementary school is free in Kenya, school fees apply to secondary school and beyond, so the universality of this law has been fiercely debated (The Economist, 2014).

In the context of all of the heart wrenching stories of migrants risking their lives to make it to Europe, one of the young woman’s stories stands out. Leila*, a 19 year old at the time, fled Kenya to Indonesia in 2013 with hopes of continuing onto Australia. Following her arrival in Indonesia, Leila was detained by local authorities and placed in a refugee camp run by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Leila lamented at the disruption of her schooling, as a result of limited schooling options in the Indonesian UNHCR camp. As days turned into nights and nights turned into days, Leila and the other refugees waited patiently for a decision on their respective cases. Today, Leila is awaiting resettlement to the United States with her husband and newborn, but continues to express sadness at the years of interrupted education. Leila had arrived to Kenya in 2009, with an education that had been interrupted by the protracted Somali civil war. Remarkably, in a few short years Leila was able to learn Swahili and English, and complete her elementary schooling only for this positive trajectory to be interrupted with her departure to Indonesia.

Leila, and the other students I met that day, force us to interrogate prevailing images of the passive Somali refugee, always in need of aid and a burden on their host nations. Despite all odds, these young Somalis were able to excel in their education. The educational trajectories of these youth were complicated by the legality of their existence in Kenya (Kenyan law stipulates that refugees have to be confined to sanctioned refugee camps). Time and time again, the refugees I met in 2012 expressed their love and gratitude for Kenya, a nation they had called home since they were young. Yet, due to the restrictions on refugees in Kenya, many felt that they have no choice but to migrate to other countries, despite the high human and financial costs of the journey. Some of these brave, Somali youth arrive in Western countries with an incredible zeal to learn and continue their education, only to be confronted with educational systems that are unforgiving for refugee youth with interrupted educations. As educators, the best way to sustain the flame for education refugee youth come with is to provide them with nurturing, supportive environments where they can thrive. These youth are not looking for pity, but a fair chance at a quality education. Educators should not perceive Leila as another refugee with limited schooling, but to build from Leila’s tremendous strengths. Despite her interrupted schooling, Leila is a multilingual Somali refugee youth and a survivor, with an immense love for learning. Given all of these attributes, coupled with a supportive teacher and classroom environment, students like Leila should thrive.

It is imperative that we discard deficit orientation to such students, which place the focus on what students ‘lack’ (i.e. English language, limited formal schooling etc.), rather than strengths. The reality about Leila and other students like her is that they are overwhelmed with the process of catching up on their missed years of schooling, while simultaneously undergoing the huge task of integrating into the new countries. How can educators assist youth like Leila?

  • By promoting multilingualism in schools and when possible, developing courses in the student’s native language or both English and the student’s home language (Alitolppa-Niitamo, 2002). Instruction in student’s first language instruction will not only promote and sustain a student’s first language, but has also been shown to facilitate English reading achievement, more so than exclusive English instruction (Castro, Paez, Dickinson & Frede, 2011).
  • The use of culturally responsive instructional materials has been advocated in improving English Language Learner student’s motivation and engagement with learning (e.g., Genesee, Geva, Dressler & Kamil, 2006; Naqvi et al., 2013). In her study with Somali refugee youth in Minnesota, Bigelow found that students not only demonstrated increased interest when culturally relevant texts were used, but also illustrated increased engagement with literacy activities which connected more strongly with Somali oral culture (e.g., poetry) (Bigelow, 2010).
  • Students like Leila, arrive to the West bearing the emotional scars of civil war and displacement. If left unchecked, a student’s traumatic past may have negative implications for their adjustment to school and to the broader society. It is crucial that schools provide and connect students with services supportive of their socioemotional wellbeing (e.g., counselling etc.). Koromo and Carey (2009) stress that students who come to school having survived traumatic experiences, can thrive in school with the use of culturally responsive curricula, which address past psychological and psychosocial issues. Koromo and Carey’s own suggested curriculum features a number of objectives, which provide students with strategies for: adapting to new social environments, learning culturally valid ways of coping with stress, understanding cultural manifestations of psychological symptoms of trauma and implications for a student’s functioning in school and community, identifying and communicating feelings related to traumatic stress and improving coping mechanisms (2009, p.1092).
  • Educators can develop closer links with the local Somali community, and provide opportunities for hands-on learning and situated learning experiences (Alitolppa-Niitamo, 2002). Somali refugee youth often feel that their identities are unwelcome, and feel forced choose between their American and Somali identities. These struggles with identity can overwhelm youth, often resulting in negative implications for educational achievement. By improving connections with student’s communities, youth will feel that both of their identities are celebrated, supported and encouraged, enabling students to feel comfortable in classroom setting.

* A pseudonym has been used in this story


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Bigelow, M. (2010). Mogadishu on the Mississippi: language, racialized identity, and education
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Classroom divisions. (2014, February 22). The Economist. Retrieved from

Genesee, F., Geva, E., Dressler, C., & Kamil, M. L. ( 2008). Cros-linguistic relationships in second-
language learners. In D. August & T. Shanahan (Eds.), Developing reading and writing in
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Kingsley, P., Bonomolo, A., & Kirchgaessner, S. (2015, April 19). 700 migrants feared dead in
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Kirchgaessner, S. (2015, April 21). Migrant shipwreck: one child’s journey from Somalia to the shores of Italy. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Koroma, S. & Carey, J. (2009). The development of a school-based curriculum to enhance wellbeing
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Naqvi, R., Thorne, K., Pfitscher, C., Nordstokke, D. & McKeogh, A. (2013). Reading dual language
books: improving early literacy skills in linguistically diverse classrooms. Journal of Early
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2 thoughts on “Understanding the Journeys of Somali Refugee Youth

  1. I totally agree that “It is imperative that we discard deficit orientation to such students, which place the focus on what students ‘lack’ (i.e. English language, limited formal schooling etc.), rather than strengths,” The suggestions for how educators can assist English Language Learners are excellent!

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