04 SES 09 C, Supporting Refugee Students in Schools: Is it possible to create an inclusive environment?
Serbia as a country on the “Balkan route” was a transit country for thousands of refugees until summer 2016. As the entry to the EU became more complicated, more and more families realized they might end up staying longer than originally planned in this last non-EU country on their route, and began considering the education of their children in Serbia. Inventing a viable modality for integrating the refugee students from the Middle East in the education system in Serbia poses a considerable challenge for a country that is struggling with low quality of education (Pavlović Babić & Baucal, 2011), high peer violence in schools (Popadić, Pavlović & Plut, 2015) and has started inclusive education only less than a decade ago (Kovač Cerović, Jovanović & Pavlović Babić, 2016) and improved integration of Roma students only after 2005 (Bojadjijeva, 2015). The integration process was supported by several projects and new policies, hence at the end of 2017 about 400 refugee students are enrolled in 50 schools across Serbia. A first snapshot on the challenges and successes of the integration process of refugees into schools highlighted both unexpected positive experiences, and also serious barriers in this process. One of the most salient positive experiences were constructive peer relationships between domicile and refugee students, along with findings of resilience of refugee students and their remarkable academic motivation (Kovač Cerović, Grbić, & Vesić, 2017).
Although international overviews and recommendations for integrating migrant students highlight measures such as language integration, early childhood education and care, parental engagement, limiting concentration in disadvantaged schools, building the capacity of schools and teachers, and limiting tracking and grade repetition, they usually do not include nurturing of peer relationships (OECD, 2015; Nusche, 2009). Developmental-psychological studies, on the other hand, stress the pivotal role of peer relationships for development and socialization throughout entire childhood and adolescence, both through success experiences with friends and through acceptance by the peer group (Parker, Rubin, Erath, Wojslawowicz, & Buskirk, 2006). Moreover, literature shows multiple facets of the peer interaction benefits especially in case of vulnerable or immigrant children, such as increased intercultural understanding (Vickers, McCarthy & Zammit, 2017), or gaining social confidence relying on at least one good friend (Albrecht and Ko, 2017) as well as positive effects of increasing opportunity for intergroup contact and involvement between immigrants’ and domicile peer relations in the longer term (Asendorpf & Motti-Stefanidi, 2017).The objective of the current paper is to build on the previous study and explore the peer relationships between the domicile and refugee students included in the schools in Serbia at greater depth and detail, to ascertain its modalities, limitations and potentials.
This paper presents a mix-method in-depth exploration of the characteristics of peer-to-peer interactions between domicile and refugee students from the perspectives of different school actors. The study is conducted in four schools located in Belgrade suburbs near the asylum centers that started integrating refugees, all of them already having comparatively high percentage of Roma, poor and disabled students. Enrollment of refugee students in two of these schools started at the beginning of 2017, and in the other two during the fall of the same year. The study participants are 80 domicile students, 50 refugee students, their teachers and school associates. Key data is provided through application of qualitative research methods and include analyses of two types of narratives written by domicile students, inspired by the “Dynamic storytelling” methodology (Daiute & Kovacs Cerovic, 2017). The first story is of a school event (real or imagined) whose main actors were both domicile and refugee students. The second story is conceptualized as a letter addressed to another student from Serbia going to a school where refugee students will also enroll, and contain recommendations based on personal experience from the process of the refugee students’ inclusion. A thematic analysis approach informed by Braun and Clarke (2006) was applied to the narratives. The data was analysed in two stages using MAXQDA software. The first applied a deductive approach (Hayes, 1997) and explored the nature of the relationships with refugees (e.g. romantic, friendship), character of joint activities (e.g. play, study, fight), roles assigned to refugee students (e.g. a hero, a victim) and distribution of the power, etc. An inductive approach was used at the second stage of analysis to find out about the organizing principles embedded in the narratives (Daiute & Kovacs Cerovic, 2017). This is complemented with focus groups with refugees (and, if possible, also narrative analysis) regarding the joint school activities. Students' viewpoints are then compared with the perspectives of teachers and school associates on peer-to-peer interaction and support obtained during interviews and focus groups. Finally, this is followed by the application of the measures of social distance towards refugee students, administrated to 120 domicile students from four aforementioned schools as well as four control Belgrade schools without refugee students.
Our first results show that in the examined schools fostering peer support is not embedded in a systematic whole school approach. Even when teachers mention examples of peer support in the classroom and show awareness of its usefulness, these refer to coincidental events occurring spontaneously among students. Discrepancies have been identified between the perspectives of school teachers and refugee students, especially older students, regarding their social integration and satisfaction. Refugee students also report on spending time mostly with each other between classes and not with domicile students. They ascribe this to the language barrier that hinders their need for communication and understanding Contrary to the former results, narratives of the domicile students provide positive and encouraging perspectives, suggesting the attitude of acceptance, positive relations and readiness to engage with refugee students in various kinds of joint activities. These narratives also describe how domicile students are striving to empathize with the experiences of refugee students, their feelings and needs regarding their present situation and future endeavors. These results are in accordance with the previous findings on the social distance scale administrated to domicile students, where relatively high social acceptance could be registered toward refugee students. Since the multifaceted peer relationships unfold even in the absence of guidance from the school, teachers or other adults, they certainly require further exploration and analysis. The findings highlight the complexity of the issue and suggest that the accepting attitudes of domicile students towards refugees are necessary, but might not be sufficient for full social inclusion to happen. Nonetheless, peers seem to be a very important facilitator of the integration for the refugee students, and the ways how the role of peers should be developed and strategically utilized in this respect will be further discussed in the paper.
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