10 Ways to Help Refugees Feel Safe in Your Classroom

Never have there been more displaced people in the world than there are right now. That is what the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported earlier this year. According to the report, there are currently about 65.3 million people who have been forced from their homes. Among them are over 20 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. The size of this massive population makes displaced people, as a whole, the 22nd most populated “nation” on earth—nuzzled between France and the United Kingdom in recent population surveys.

As churches and mission organizations grapple with these overwhelming figures—and ask the question “What can we do to help?”—many Christians around the world will find themselves face-to-face with a refugee in the near future. For most refugees who find themselves suddenly in a country which isn’t their own, one of their most pressing needs is to find a friendly teacher who can help them navigate this difficult transition. This might include learning a new language, a new form of currency, an entirely new education system for your children, and much more.

So whether you are heading overseas to a refugee camp in the Middle East or Africa, or volunteering at a language school in your hometown, here are a few ways to help refugees feel welcome and safe when they’re in your classroom.

The following tips are brought to you by the TESOL schools at YWAM Montana-Lakeside, where we equip missionaries with tools to transform entire communities through the power of relationships, education, and the gospel message. Our next TESOL course, beginning in April 2017, features a special focus on the refugee crisis, and participants will receive a teaching certification and a wide range of practical skills to help them make a positive impact for refugees—both at home and abroad.

Creating Stability

“When it comes to learning, a safe and friendly place is the best place.”

1. Break Down The Wall

Take out a blank piece of paper. Draw a line down the center, splitting the page into two columns. On the left side, make a list of all the struggles a refugee faces as they transition to life in America (or in whichever city or country you find yourself). If you don’t have time to make a complete list, then write only 3-5 things that resonate most deeply to you, such as: learning a new city’s public transit system, finding meaningful work, and recovering from the traumatic stress of war.

Next, make a list on the right side of the paper to include all the ways you want to help. These can be very practical things, such as: taking a refugee on a fun adventure for the day by exploring your city’s bus routes, or sitting in a coffee shop and teaching them a few phrases relevant to their new occupation (remember that some of these refugees were rural farmers while still others were doctors and engineers in their country, but now they may all be forced to work unfamiliar jobs, such as in hotels, restaurants, assembly lines, and grocery stores).

Some of the items on your list may be less practical, or less hands-on. For example, when faced with helping a refugee recover from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), you may find that your only response is to pray and ask God for physical and emotional healing in their life. Whatever your response, having this simple two-column action plan is a great place to begin your journey of helping refugees in your community. It will align your heart with God’s heart, and will give you a vision and a hope for the plight of displaced people everywhere.

And this is more than just a list of actions and needs. Each of these difficulties are like bricks in a wall—a barrier separating each refugee from a future of untold possibilities. And there are practical ways, and even some delightfully impractical ways, that we can all help break down that wall.

2. Be Their Rock (Take Care of Emotions First)

Do you remember what it was like trying to study in high school when half the time you were distracted by all the feelings and emotions that go with being a teenager? Is that person interested in me? Should I ask them to the upcoming dance? What if I get rejected? What if I don’t get rejected!? This onslaught of emotion—whether positive or negative—can make it hard to focus on your math homework, yet these social pressures are a necessary part of navigating society. And no matter what stage of life we are in, we are required to complete tasks, both simple and complex, no matter what social pressures are being placed on us.

For a refugee, it is quite common for them to be feeling an extremely wide range of emotions while attempting to complete very complex tasks at the same time. Some of these tasks can be brand new to a refugee and may require a great deal of learning and practice before they can get it right. Imagine trying to learn a foreign language while still struggling with the loss of your spouse to violence. How might your studying be affected? And imagine the feeling of standing before a judge in an American courtroom, when the government of your previous country was complicit in a genocide against you and your entire community. In a way, we are familiar with the difficulty of learning while under emotional stress. We dealt with it, to some degree, as emotion-filled teenagers. Many refugees deal with it every single day, and some of them feel this pressure to a greater degree than we could ever imagine.

It is extremely important to take care of the emotional needs of anyone who is in the process of learning something new—and a new refugee may have a lot to learn. When emotions run high, learning becomes impossible. In fact, a student may completely stop learning until you’re able to correct whatever physical or emotional barrier is hindering their learning process. In order to help refugee students with their learning, we must be their “rock” (or show them how Jesus can be the ultimate anchor in their life). This might mean making sure that we’re emotionally stable ourselves. And before we try to teach our next lesson, it helps to first stop and ask the question, “What are my students feeling, and how can I help alleviate those emotions?”

In my personal experience, it also helps to avoid having balloons in your classroom or anything else that may inadvertently explode in the middle of your vocabulary lesson! I laugh as I think about this, but sadly, many refugees are all too familiar with explosions. And our classrooms need to be safe places where students feel a sense of security and stability instead of fear.

3. Create a Safe Space

When it comes to learning, a safe and friendly place is the best place. And there are a few practical ways for us to create such an environment in our classroom. One key to managing the emotions of your students is, above all, to manage their expectations. Try starting each class in the same way, using the same processes and activities each time. By doing this, your students will have a better idea of what to expect before entering your classroom. When your world has been flipped upside down multiple times and you’re unable to know what the future holds, it’s amazing what it can do to have a place where you know exactly what to expect, every day. Classrooms are some of the best places for creating this kind of trust and hope for the future, and it comes down simply to you being a teacher that manages your students’ expectations.

Another thing you can do is to greet your students at the door each day. Many refugees come from “warm-climate cultures” that value hospitality and friendliness much more than the refugee’s new host country. Thus, politely greeting them at the door before every single class—and, similarly, making sure to gently honor them as they depart—can go a long way with developing your relationships. And as you try to take care of your students’ expectations it is helpful if you keep the seating arrangement the same for every class (even if this is only for the very beginning of each class). As language teachers, we often like to “keep things interesting” by moving the furniture around the room. However, you can create a little more stability in a refugee’s life by making sure they’re able to start each new lesson in the same seat.

Valuing Culture

“We have to adopt an attitude that we are learners more than we are teachers.”

4. Understand Their Story

Alright, so by now we’ve connected with a group of refugees and we’ve helped them find emotional and social stability. Where do we go from here? It is important for us to increase the understanding we have of our students. As we move forward in our relationship journey with anyone, we naturally move from being “strangers” to being friends. And one of the steps of that journey has to be “understanding.” Learning more about that person, and letting them and their story affect our own. This is how many great friendships are created, and sometimes it happens so naturally that we don’t even notice it. Suddenly, we realize that we’ve become great friends with this new—and once strange—person.

Understanding someone from a different culture than your own, however, can take longer. And it can require more of a process, and more intentionality on your part. There might be some serious cultural and linguistic hurdles that you will need to overcome before you can have the sort of lasting relationship that we all find to be so meaningful in life. As you can see, you need to make every effort to get to know your refugee students more. Listen to their story, let it sink in and have its affect on you, in order to cross the divide of strangeness and misunderstanding.

Take heart, because this means that you (the teacher) now need to become the learner. You may need to start asking a lot of questions. You may need to do a little digging and researching. And you may need to look a little foolish, in order to one day become “friends.”

5. Know Their Name

You might be surprised to find out that most teachers I observe do not spend nearly enough time trying to learn their students’ names. Yet, a person’s name is one of the most important pieces of their identity and their story. It not only says something about them, it is them—it is who they are. So, getting it right should be at the top of your to-do list. Of course, learning new names, many of them with foreign sounds, can be quite difficult. Here are a few tips to help you quickly learn your students’ names.

Begin by getting their name in writing somehow, if possible. If you can see it in writing, then you’re more likely to remember it. You can try having them write it on a name tag, but this will only help you if your student is literate and uses the same alphabet as you do (if their name is written in Arabic, let’s say, then you will not find their name tag to be very beneficial and you will need to help them spell their name using your alphabet). And it is at this point that so many newcomers to your culture may start to think about adopting a new, less foreign name—such as “Mike” or “Jessica.” But every time you attempt to use your student’s real name, you honor them and help them keep this part of their culture and identity intact. You’re saying to them, “I value you, and I value your culture—I value your story.”

So get to know your students, not by their face but by their name. Use it often, and do your best to pronounce it correctly. I often find it’s best to take a moment right after I’ve met someone for the first time and ask them “How do I say you name? Am I saying it correctly?” And if you find yourself in a room full of new students, then do a fun icebreaker activity that will give you numerous chances to hear everyone’s name over and over again. For more on this, we’ve put a few of our favorite icebreaker activities in our resource, Fun Activities for Teaching English (see the activities titled Find Someone Who and The Name Game for a fun place to start).

6. Let Them Teach You

In order to ever begin understanding someone we have to adopt an attitude that we are learners more than we are teachers. Every good teacher must rely on being a good learner. And one way to express to your students how much you value them and their culture is by letting them teach you something. Create opportunities in your classroom for your students to instruct the whole group. It could be allowing them to create a collage that illustrates life from their native country, or letting them share a unique or differing perspective from their culture as it relates to the topic of today’s lesson. Once in a while, we enjoy hosting a “Language & Culture Party” where everyone from our language class is able to bring a dish from their country, and where we are able to have a meal together and celebrate all of the cultures in the room as we learn from one another.

If you are a language teacher and your objective is simply to teach other people your language, and never the other way around, then you are missing out on one of the greatest blessings that is right in front of you. And you are missing out on an amazing chance to honor and value the other cultures in the room. If you work closely with a group of multilingual people, then don’t miss out on learning as much as you can of their languages. You won’t be disappointed that you did, and in the end it will make you an even better teacher of your own language.

Building Relationships

“Do all three of these in the same day. This is how friendships are made.”

7. Have Fun Outside the Classroom

We’ve discussed some of the amazing advantages that classrooms bring, especially in the way which they create a safe and friendly space for learning. But learning can happen outside of the classroom too, and so can a lot of other things. Relationships, I believe, are meant to be created outside. I have spoken with teachers who struggle to understand why they didn’t see deeper relationships formed from their time spent teaching in classrooms. And my greatest encouragement to anyone who is seeking to build relationships through their teaching is to simply get outside the classroom.

Now it may be wise for me to give you a word of caution at this time. Despite your best intentions, you may need to be careful of your organization’s policies regarding fraternization, if there are any. And you definitely want to make sure you do what is acceptable and wise within the cultures represented. For example, in some cultures, if a male and female are seen alone together, it is automatically assumed they are a married couple. Still other cultures might not be comfortable with mixing genders in public at all, no matter the size of the group. So these are all things to be aware of, and might require some sensitivity. However, if you find yourself in a North American or European country, then it’s likely that you’ll have no problems scheduling a time to meet your students outside of regular class.

Plan a fun outing over the weekend, or host a movie night, or take your students to the grocery store and then prepare a meal together. Or do all three of these in the same day. This is how friendships are made. Be wise, be understanding, and see the transformation that comes when friends go outside together.

8. Be Their Guide (Walk Alongside)

We are all familiar with the image of the prototypical leader. That person who is willing to walk in front and lead the way. Oftentimes, they are also seen as the person who gives the most effort, and who gets the most fame in return. I don’t have anything against this type of leader, but I want to try to offer another model of leadership which I find to be valuable, especially for refugees.

A refugee who has been forcibly displaced from the world they once knew, doesn’t need you to be an expert lecturer, a fanciful storyteller, or a “sage on the stage.” They need more from you than to quietly listen while you recite all of your knowledge in the hope that some of your students passively receive it. Instead, your students need you to be their “guide on the side.” They need you to be there, to walk alongside them as they navigate their new world—as both parties actively participate in the learning process.

This principle is key when creating the type of relationship we’ve discussed so far—where you, as the teacher, are also committed to being a learner, and where you are striving to understand their story. Solidarity is what is needed most, not leadership and subjugation. They need a guide, and you need more understanding. Therefore, it is vital that, during this journey, you walk alongside your refugee students instead of solely out in front.

9. Be Their Champion (Stand Up)

Finally, when it comes to developing positive relationships while caring for the needs of your refugee students, it’s important to realize that on certain occasions they may need you to rise from your guiding role and for you to take a greater stand than ever before. You may need to raise your voice. You may need to exit the classroom and take it to the streets, to the newsrooms, and the courtrooms. Not only have refugees lost their home country, their family members, and their entire support network, but most have lost their voice as well. They may need you to take a stand and fight for their rights and needs as citizens—and as your friends.

At the beginning of this article I asked you to create two lists: one for the struggles that refugees face, and one for the ways you wish to help them in those struggles. Some of the ways you can support refugees will be very practical. However, there will also come times when a little imagination, innovation, and bravery are what is needed most. Is there something on your list that no one else will do, or even attempt? In what ways do refugees need you to stand up and be their champion?

Equipping for Transformation

“Bringing God’s practical love and Kingdom to those in need.”

10. What’s In Your Tool Belt?

Welcome to the starting line. This is where your adventure begins. There are tens of millions of refugees and displaced people out there who are waiting for you to be their champion and guide. They need a teacher just like you, and they have a lot to teach you as well. As you give them the tools they need to successfully navigate their new lives, it may be a good idea to take a moment to assess your own set of skills. Are there any tools in your “tool belt” that could do for a little sharpening?

We work with hundreds of students every year who want to be agents of transformation in communities around the world, bringing God’s practical love and Kingdom to those in need. With that in mind, here are two schools that I think you would find invaluable as you make a better world possible for those in need everywhere on the planet.

Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages

Our TESOL schools are designed to train everyday people like you and me to be English teachers in any country on the mission field. Our upcoming course features a special focus on the refugee crisis, and includes a mini-outreach to a refugee community in the United States. This course is backed by an internationally recognized TESOL certification that can open many doors of opportunity, both in limited-access nations overseas and among the multicultural neighbors near your front door. Whether or not you have any prior training or experience as a teacher, this course will be an unforgettable learning experience.

Community Development School

The Community Development School is a course that focuses on equipping you to become an effective multiplier of community transformation from a Kingdom of God perspective. This course provides an overview of the issues involved in helping communities be transformed toward God’s intentions. It focuses on a Biblical understanding of the root causes of poverty and underdevelopment, and the strategies needed to enable people to overcome the hurdles to their community’s transformation. The key is people—transformed hearts, minds, and lives—resulting in transformed communities, societies, and nations.

As You Go

Winston Churchill once said, “I never worry about action, but only inaction.” And it is our hope that you will be able to pursue the dreams God has for you—whatever they may be, and however difficult or worrisome they may seem—and that he will completely equip and empower you for that future. As you begin, please reach out and share your vision and heart with us as well. And share any questions you have or challenges you may have experienced, so that we can be of help to you as we learn together.

May God bless you as you go.


Ready to make the jump.

At YWAM Montana-Lakeside, we are all about doing whatever it takes to know God and to make Him known, together! We’d love to help you make that next step in your global missions education. Apply now!

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