Skip to content

Lessons Learned The Hard Way – Part Three

  • by

Teaching Refugees

While this post was always going to feature in my series, Lessons Learned The Hard Way, recent world events have made this theme more prescient. Across the western world, many schools and communities are opening their doors to refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine while there is also an ongoing stream of migrants from Syria and other troubled parts of the world.

It is obviously an urgent and sensitive subject, and I should warn in advance that this post refers to some difficult and potentially triggering issues including rape and violence.

After several years teaching in state schools and private language schools in Britain, Greece, Italy and Spain, I was employed by an NGO based in Vienna and affiliated with the U.N. I had become quite confident in my abilities as an English Language teacher, but this was a new direction, and I was a little daunted by the challenge.

My job mainly involved teaching Emergency English to refugees from the Bosnian war who were waiting in Austria while their applications to move to English speaking countries were processed. To some extent, I was thrown in at the deep end, and the only advice I got was to combine my teaching experience with common sense and do the best I could. I felt quite overwhelmed by the prospect. My task was to ensure the refugees in my teaching groups, who had widely differing levels of English, could speak well and confidently enough to secure accommodation and employment when they reached the country they had applied to live in.

The first group I taught seemed very easy to manage. It was a small class consisting of two extended families, ages ranging from five to fifty-five. Their English level varied from A1 to possibly B1.

I was warned before taking the job that there could potentially be conflict between some students from different ethnic backgrounds. There had been occasional violence in the refugee camp where the lessons were based. I didn’t witness it personally and it was never apparent in any of the classes I taught. However, the two families in my first class were from differing backgrounds, Muslim and Croatian, so I was a little wary at first. However, they got on extremely well together.

The youngest member of the Croatian family was five years old. He was accompanied by an older brother and sister, his parents and grandparents. The Muslim family consisted of a middle-aged couple and their teenage daughters aged sixteen and eighteen. There didn’t seem to be anything remarkable about them except the father had permanent dark patches around his eyes as if he wasn’t sleeping properly.

The course went well; so well in fact that I sometimes forgot I was teaching refugees from a civil war. I relaxed into my teaching role and style which I try to interject with light-hearted exchanges and humour whenever possible. The Croatian family reacted quite well to my banter, and we were able to exchange some jokes and have fun in the lessons. The Muslim family, however, while attentive and diligent in their work, often seemed cold and monosyllabic in their responses even though, on paper, the two teenage girls had the highest level of English in the group. It began to frustrate me a bit and I spoke to my supervisor about it.

I explained my concerns and asked if my supervisor knew anything about the backgrounds of the students in my group. It was clear that he did, but was unwilling to say much about it. Over the next few days, I persisted in asking. “I’m not allowed to tell you.” He replied. “And if I did tell you, you might wish that you hadn’t asked. Your job is to teach them English that will be useful to them in building new lives. Just concentrate on that.”

I am not usually persistent in such things, but I was curious and slightly annoyed by the fact that something was being hidden from me, so I continued to probe. Eventually, after a few more days of constant questioning by me, my supervisor sat me down in a break between lessons.

“I can’t tell you about any specific people,” He said, “but I suppose can tell you a story…

There was a man who had lived all his life in a small Bosnian village. He lived together with his wife and two teenage daughters. The village where they lived was nominally Croatian, but the man and his family were Muslim. It had never been an issue and they got on very well with their neighbours. Then ethnic unrest came to other parts of Bosnia and the civil war broke out. In the village, life continued as normal for a while. After a short time, however, the war was getting nearer, and the villagers began to get nervous. Some decided to leave and move to safer parts of Bosnia or go abroad. The Muslim man was warned by friends that if soldiers from one of the Serbian militias arrived, he might be targeted more aggressively than the other residents. ‘Nonsense!’ The man replied. ‘I have lived here all my life. I have Serbian friends. People know me.’

Ignoring more and more urgent warnings to leave, the Muslim man and his family stayed put. Then one night a group of Serbian soldiers called at the Muslim man’s house. They were very aggressive and threatened to kill the whole family. The man tried to reason with them. Although he didn’t recognise any of the soldiers personally, he gave them the names of Serbian friends in nearby villages who he was sure would vouch for him. They weren’t interested. But they didn’t kill him…

Instead, they beat the man up and tied him to a chair. Then they fetched his wife and daughters and took turns raping them in front of him. One of the soldiers held the man’s head and prised his eyes open so that he couldn’t look away.

‘Stay here as long as you like.’ They laughed as they left the following morning. ‘We’ll be back tonight for more.’”

I didn’t want to admit it to myself but, as I walked back into the classroom a few minutes later, I could understand my supervisor’s wisdom in not wanting to tell me the story of what my students had been through. I’m not sure how I held myself together for the remainder of the day. I was teaching a lesson about the correct prepositions to use when giving directions, but I’m pretty sure my voice broke every time I looked at the Muslim father and his family… Explaining to the timid sixteen-year-old daughter why you should say ‘turn left at the junction’ and not ‘turn left on the junction’ seemed so unbelievably inconsequential in comparison to the horrors they had been through.

But it wasn’t.

A few months later she wrote to me from New York thanking me for the lessons. She said that the whole family were working at Mcdonalds and that she and her sister were also going to school. Her mother and father were happily decorating the tiny apartment they were sharing and planning a trip to a beach in New Jersey. They had made a new start and being able to communicate in English had played a significant part in that.

Later that year I was teaching another group of Bosnian refugees. These were mainly young adults with a fairly high level of English. They had already been waiting at the refugee camp in Vienna for many months and some were resigned to the fact that their applications to be accepted into an English-speaking country were likely to be rejected. Taking steps to improve their English was one of the few things they could do to strengthen their application status. From the beginning, they were a nice class to work with, but in my first session with them, I made one of the stupidest mistakes of my teaching career.

I did what I often do at the start of any course, I began by asking the students to tell me something about themselves. “Just tell me your name, your age and where you are from,” I instructed them naively.

At first, all went well and normally. Each student introduced themselves and said something about the town or village they had come from. They were all from Croatian or Muslim areas. Then it was the turn of a young woman to speak. She had seemed lively and chatty when the group had first walked into the room, but she clammed up completely when it was her turn to speak. She looked agitated and I noticed tears come to her eyes. Then a palpable and very uncomfortable silence went around the room.

Suddenly the man sitting next to her who had just told me about the mainly Muslim village he had grown up in, reached over and hugged the woman around the shoulders. Then he spoke, “Dear Teacher, I present to you Jelena… And she is from Bosnia Herzegovina just like the rest of us.”

At first, I wasn’t sure what had just happened, then it dawned on me… She was the only Serbian in the group, and I had unwittingly singled her out.

The rest of the lesson and the rest of the course went smoothly. A few of the students eventually moved on to Canada and the USA. Most however were given leave to remain in Austria and they stayed there. The Serbian woman set up a successful hairdressing business in Vienna and still lived there when last I heard.

What I learned from these experiences might be enough to fill a book and in truth, there are probably still some things I am processing myself now that the plight of refugees is in the headlines again. However, I think there are three main things to bear in mind when walking into a class of refugees for the first time.

One, we can never really know or guess what our students have experienced and endured but they are bound to be traumatised to some degree. That trauma can manifest in many different ways, or it might be hidden, but it is there. It is not our job to poke or probe into what has happened to them, however; if they want or need to speak about it, we need to establish a safe environment in which they can do so. That might not always be with us in the classroom in front of other students. We will sometimes need to gently guide them to other experts or agencies.

Two, we need to reflect on our teaching style and methods and question activities and materials we habitually use to assess if they are appropriate for the particular group of refugees in our class. We don’t want to accidentally add to their trauma.

Three, the English we teach them is important in its own right and could be a valuable tool in helping our students to rebuild meaningful and happy lives.

There is also a fourth thing. You cannot work with refugees without being affected by them. We need to give ourselves time and space to process our experiences with them and protect our own mental health.


The following links provide useful information and some teaching resources for schools and individual teachers who are intending to work with refugees.

Ten Tips For Working With Refugees—Human Rights Careers

Welcoming Refugee Children To Your School—National Education Union

Welcoming Refugee And Asylum Seeking Learners—The Bell Foundation

Guidance on Working with Refugee Children Struggling with Stress and Trauma—DECID/UNHCR

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *