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Child Refugees Welcome? How schools can help.

Child refugees flee war and conflict and their journey to safety can be a long and traumatic. What can we do to ensure they feel safe, welcome and included in our schools asks Nola Ellen.    

Who are refugees? Where are they from? Where do they go? What kinds of experiences do refugee children have? What’s the difference between the term ‘migrant’ ‘asylum seeker’ ‘refugee’? The definition I like to use with school children is that ‘asylum’ means safe place, which is what asylum seekers are looking for, and a refugee is someone who seeks a safe place and has been granted permission to stay. Ordinary people experiencing extraordinary life events. Migrants, more broadly, leave one place for another for many reasons, through choice. Asylum seekers and refugees don’t move through choice. Many don’t want to leave their homeland but it simply isn’t safe to remain.

 The situations people flee, the journey to the UK and navigating the asylum system in the UK vary widely but these experiences can have a huge effect on the emotional wellbeing of children. Some of the challenges that young refugees face include displacement, experiencing and witnessing conflict and violence, bereavement, dealing with a huge sense of loss, separation from family, friends, home, their way of life.

Some families make long and difficult journeys through Africa, the Middle East and Europe, on the way they may experience hostility, violence, detention, and exploitation. Then, once people do arrive to the UK, there are even more challenges to face – from the lack of sensitivity towards refugees in the media, to our complex asylum process and government policies that make life extremely tough for people seeking asylum in the UK. Parents can be made to be wait years for a decision on their asylum claim, and because we don’t allow most asylum seekers to work, people are pushed way below the poverty line. A significant amount of parents are skilled, well educated, professional individuals, who wish to work, support their families and contribute to society. Refugee communities tend not to be used to living on handouts. Not allowing people to work really crushes people’s morale, their sense of self-worth and it has a detrimental impact on people’s emotional health and quality of life. With the success of all initial asylum claims being around 30% many asylum seekers live in daily fear of detention and deportation back to their country of origin.

All this has an impact on children too. They can find it difficult to sleep, to concentrate in the classroom, and at times regulate their emotions. Children can face stigma, racism, language barriers, and cultural differences. It’s crucial that the particular needs of refugee children are understood and supported in order enable them to settle, integrate and thrive.

For me, enabling true inclusion starts with increased awareness through practice based education and training. Raising awareness is paramount because children and adults need to be able to unravel what they think they know about refugees, often shaped by negative media perceptions, and start to connect with the reality of life for refugee communities. Even in culturally diverse schools with a high proportion of refugee children, knowledge of refugee issues is often basic. The great news is there are quite a few strategies that I’ve experienced worked incredibly well to promote the inclusion of young refugees in your school and wider communities.

Firstly, staff who do home / school liaisons need to be encouraged to build a clear picture of children᾿s home life, and where appropriate, sensitively build an understanding of what children may have experienced in their country of origin and journey to the UK and what their educational history involved. This helps to put emotional and social development, behaviour and academic attainment into context. Working with the child at the centre, schools can start to identify whether any additional support may be needed. Staff need to foster strong links with parents, creating a safe space in where parents feel involved, welcomed, support and included. The more you can get parents into school, whether to provide an ESOL class, a coffee morning, to observe a lesson or engaged in volunteering, the better.

You can also create a welcome DVD or welcome book. Children can be involved in storyboarding, filming different parts of the school, interviewing teachers and talking about things like the school day, extra-curricular activities, lunchtimes, uniform,

PE kit – everything someone new to England would need to know about the school. These resources are also great to show to parents as well as pupils.


Peer to Peer buddy initiatives work well, especially if volunteer positions are advertised like job roles, and pupils are interviewed and trained if they wish to get involved. Anything that helps children to boost their English language skills is great. Also programmes and clubs which encourage all children to share and celebrate their cultural heritage with others. This build self esteem and a strong positive identity, it’s about reminding children that they don’t need to assimilate to all things English to fit in. There are many creative ways to promote inter-cultural dialogue amongst children such as music, arts, sport.

The children in your class will have a thirst for information and will engage with refugee awareness messages really well. But it’s also about helping pupils to become the active citizens of positive change in your school and community. Ask them, “What are you going to do with this new information?”.  It’s getting them to think about the small acts of kindness that they can do that make an amazing difference. And the way children respond really do touch your heart. Children are generally so receptive, accepting and open-minded. It makes you think that, if more adults shared their outlook, there wouldn’t even be a need for this type of work!

Finally, I really encourage you to familiarise yourself with the Schools of Sanctuary Movement. Check out their website, it’s a great way to learn and share good practice around ensuring schools are safe and welcoming places for ALL children. 

About the author

Nola Ellen is an independent educator, trainer and youth practitioner who offers refugee awareness workshops for children and staff in schools and runs programmes to promote racial equality, diversity, children’s rights and inclusion. She has over 15 years experience working with young refugees. She founded Hearts and Hopes, a youth lead social action project that builds friendships between British schoolchildren and children seeking sanctuary both locally and around the world. To find out more, please visit:

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