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I didn’t start out wanting to work in education. I was just a soccer coach, trying to help the kids I was coaching – kids from refugee families who were going to schools that didn’t know how to support them.
I met these kids in Atlanta, Georgia, where I’d ended up a few years after being granted asylum myself. I was born in Amman, Jordan, where my first experience of speaking anything other than Arabic was at a British Embassy school. Eventually, through total immersion and the dedication of truly wonderful teachers, I began to learn English. I began to love school.
For the kids I was coaching in Georgia, things were very different. For many, their first experience with school had been in refugee camps, where for one hour a day, a volunteer would teach classes of 60-70 students across a wide range of ages and academic levels. This is not, in any meaningful way ‘going to school’.
We decry the stories we see of children in war-torn countries unable to access education – girls prevented from attending class on account of their gender, children being forced to leave school at 10 or 11 to work and support their family. But when children like these arrive in our own schools, when they finally have access to the type of quality education we claim to value, we don’t actually make it accessible for them.
As a coach, I would never throw a kid into a game if they didn’t know the basics of soccer. That would be setting them up for failure, for humiliation, for defeat.
But that’s exactly what we do to refugee and immigrant students in our school systems. We expect a teenager who doesn’t know basic addition to grasp the concepts of algebra. We ask a child who cannot read or speak English to write papers on Shakespeare. We expect kids dealing with the trauma of violence and displacement in their home country – not to mention xenophobia in their new one – to manage their behaviour in a way that puts our comfort before their wellbeing.
Our failure is doing immense damage. Globally, only 3% of refugees have access to higher education. Much like in the US, a lack of specialist expertise for English learners causes significant disparities in school performance for these students in the UK.
This is not to say that teachers aren’t doing their best – they know our current systems aren’t cutting it. We can’t fix our systemic problems through individual behaviour. Instead, we need to rethink the status quo.
Back on the soccer field, I knew this kind of systemic, transformative, change was the only way to ensure the kids on my team got the education they deserve. Which is how our underdog soccer team became the foundation of our underdog school.
What makes the Fugees approach different is our dedication to ensuring students feel safe and seen in all aspects of their school experience. We meet students where they are, whether that means teaching the alphabet to 13 year olds or explaining basic addition to a high-schooler. Our trauma-informed, culturally aware, teaching practices allow students to see their identity as a source of pride and strength, rather than shame or isolation.
Our focus on athletics and arts as essential learning tools encourages self-expression and confidence. On the soccer field, kids from completely different corners of the world can build trust and meaningful connection as part of a team.
Creating safe spaces for refugee and immigrant students to learn the fundamentals isn’t coddling them or sheltering them from the real world – it’s about instilling a self-confidence that primes them for growth. Whether teaching the basics or more advanced curricula, our insistence on rigour and mastery is our way of demonstrating that, in a sea of stories asking us to feel sorry for refugees, we believe in them and their immense potential.
After 18 years, the results speak for themselves. Fugees Academy just celebrated its eighth class of high school graduates and many are going on to university. We’re now partnering with school districts to design and support better newcomer programmes nationwide through our Project Teranga initiative.
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In year one, 98% of Teranga students met or exceeded typical growth in math and 89% in reading – unheard-of results for a newcomer programme. More importantly, students are confident in who they are and proud of where they come from, and the schools feel like true communities – like extended families.
This kind of innovation is needed worldwide. The number of UK asylum applications in 2022 was double the number in 2019, and continues to grow. We are currently witnessing the highest levels of forcibly displaced people on record. Whether they meet the cruelly narrow legal definition of ‘refugee’ or not, more and more people are being forced to leave everything they know behind.
We can choose to turn a blind eye to these people; to relegate them to the margins of our society. Or we can reimagine our institutions to see refugees and immigrants for what they truly are: our neighbours, hungry for the opportunity to work hard and build a better future.
Addressing such a layered, vast problem feels like an overwhelming, almost impossible task. But we can’t let intimidation become complacency.
Instead, we should start where we know we can make a difference – in our own communities. We can advocate for newcomers and welcome them as our neighbours. We can create environments where children feel safe and seen. Where they feel valued by – and invested in – their new home.
The experience of refugees and immigrants show us everything that’s wrong with our education systems. Designing ones that help them succeed won’t just benefit these students, but will require building truly inclusive, supportive learning environments that help all students believe in themselves, their ideas, and our collective future.
‘Believe in Them: One Woman’s Fight for Justice for Refugee Children’ by Luma Mufleh is published by COGITO Publishing