Getting beyond good intentions

“In many ways the questions around refugee youth in Canada are a window into bigger issues in Canadian society that we have a hard time talking about,” says Sara Carpenter, a professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Educational Policy Studies.

“From the standpoint of where I am in the Faculty of Education, this has implications for teachers in schools and people in community organizations and how we have to think about working in coalition with each other, because addressing these issues isn’t just about meeting the needs of refugees—it’s about meeting the needs of people who experience insecurity more broadly and hopefully making some fundamental changes to our society.”

Carpenter is the principal investigator on a research project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada titled “Pedagogy and Policy of Refugee Youth Resettlement” and co-applicant on the SSHRC-funded research project “Youth in Transition: War, Migration, and Regenerative Possibilities”. Both projects focus on the experiences of people aged 18 to 30 as they migrate out of war zones and through transition countries to arrival in Canada, as well as efforts by government, community organizations and activists to help them settle.

We spoke with Carpenter about her research into the realities faced by migrating youth when they arrive in Canada, the needs they have in common with Canadian youth, and the coalition of educators, policy-makers, service providers and activists required to start filling the gaps.

Faculty of Education: It’s been just over a year since Canada started to receive large numbers of refugees from Syria. What have you seen in your research relative to their resettlement experiences?

Sara Carpenter: One of the things this research can do is show how incredibly difficult it is to resettle. Many people make the assumption that if you come into Canada as a refugee, you’re privately sponsored or government sponsored and that means you have a year of your life basically paid for, and that’s not the case at all.

What I see in the data is a tremendous amount of isolation. There’s obviously a huge amount of trauma, but also people are confined to being only understood as victims of violence, which is not how they understand themselves and not how they want to be understood. The overwhelming organizational response from schools and service agencies is that the only need they have is to address their trauma. They want jobs, they want safe housing, they want access to community and cultural support, they want language instruction. A year is not a lot of time in the scope of things.

Mass resettlement of refugees is a long-term commitment to people’s welfare and should entail recognition of what has led to displacement in the first place. If approached in this way, it really raises questions about what our society’s commitment is to everyone’s welfare. In many ways, questions about refugee resettlement can’t be taken apart from the other conversations we have about what education should look like for all of our young people: how are we preparing them for what their role is going to be in the economy, do we have jobs for them, what kind of jobs, what quality of life will they provide? They’re not different questions. But we layer on top of refugee young people a whole set of ideas driven by racism and long histories of colonial and imperialist engagements with the rest of the world.

Faculty of Education: That would seem to conflict with the media narrative that Canadians should feel good about refugee resettlement as proof of our national altruism.

SC: There are some ideological problems that have to be overcome. There are always good intentions. I’ve worked in refugee resettlement for 15 years and people always have tremendous sympathy with human suffering. They come forward to help in this specifically humanitarian way, although I would suggest that their energies are needed to address the root causes of mass displacement as well.

It is important that this issue is primarily discussed as being separate and apart from Canada's own history of dispossession and displacement of indigenous populations. But what is very common in this process is for 'sponsors' to understand a path to a good life from their own position in Canadian society and to impose that vision on those who are the recipients of their sympathies. That matters a great deal in how people experience this process. What we’re telling young people is that there’s a particular way to be in this society and this is what a successful person looks like, and this is the amount we’re able to help you get ahead if you play by all the rules. But often we pay very little attention to who these people actually are and how the experiences they have contradict what we’re saying. And we pay even less attention to our own contradictions, internal to our society, which means that this 'good life' might not be as readily available as we believe.

Things that come out of the data like fraudulent cellphone plans, fraudulent financial services, scam credit cards, wage theft, experiences of racism and exclusion, outright violence—all these multiple points of exploitation are things I’m hearing a lot from people right now. This is why we have to have a conversation about so-called radicalization, because it becomes ideological warfare, it becomes us yelling at young people that this is a great multicultural liberal society and you need to be tolerant and accept that value system—but we’re not actually going to put that into practice in the context of your own life, and it’s on you to resolve that contradiction.

It is naïve of us to think that the narrative of Canada is accepted easily. The young people participating in this research see these paradoxes. They point out the government neglect of First Nations communities, and they raise the issue of transphobia. They experience housing insecurity, food insecurity, being turned away from every point of access to education. They are working to reconcile their aspirations with our realities.

Faculty of Education: What specific issues are there related to migrant youth continuing their education in Canada?

SC: Post-secondary access is a huge issue. For youth coming into the country with status, the problem has to do with getting through the bureaucracy. They may not have the proper documents, they might not have been able to finish high school, they may have left in the middle of a semester. It is difficult to reconstruct a transcript or exam results. There is the added layer of Canada's already existing problems around recognizing foreign credentials in many kinds of work.

Then there are youth who are waiting to be assigned refugee status and have no access to funding. They have to pay the same as international students, which are exorbitant costs that really only sink them into debt and make them more vulnerable to some of the employment and financial scams. These are huge barriers, huge interruptions. It’s a big deal to be 18 and be told you’re cut off from the major narrative about how you establish your life in this country.

Faculty of Education: As part of your research, you’re involved in organizing a symposium in Toronto this spring on refugee resettlement that will bring together different groups who have a role in resettlement and integration. What are your hopes for the event?

SC: What we’re hoping to do is generate more cross-sectoral conversations. These different groups—resettlement workers, educators, activists, policy-makers—sometimes function in their own spaces. So we’re hoping to build spaces where people can hear from each other and particularly hear how they understand the dynamics of the problems, because that’s really important.

We’re trying to hear from people about how research in their areas can be effective and useful in creating policy, but also in influencing what’s happening in the community sector in terms of the kinds of programming supports that are offered to young people. For example, bridging programs for people who have interrupted or incomplete credits in post-secondary education—how do we make those programs work for students with international credentials? How do we recognize and value other educational experiences? How do we set young people up for success in Canadian higher education?

There’s also a need for different kinds of language instruction. That’s a major area that’s been defunded by the federal government over the last 12 or 13 years and filled in piecemeal. The kinds of language instruction that are available to [young refugees] aren't necessarily going to prepare them for post-secondary education. We already know from adult education research that the experience of language learning is not always an empowering one for migrants; it is often infantilizing and a conduit to acute experiences of racism.

One of the reasons we want to bring migrant justice activists into the discussion is that so much migrant justice activism in Canada is around temporary foreign worker issues, and there is so much overlap in the issues that have to be addressed. I don't want to imply that status does not matter; status does matter. But if you have to change residences every three months and you do not have access to safe housing, the precariousness people experience is complex and shared and has deep commonalities.

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Feature image: Assistant professor Sara Carpenter’s research points to social isolation, racism, unrealistic expectations, and difficulty accessing post-secondary education as major challenges faced by young refugees settling in Canada.

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