Children are the new dispossessed

By Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco and Roberto Suro

A body on a beach. A boy in an ambulance. The images linger and haunt, but they no longer startle. We have become accustomed to the sight of children fleeing violence. They are now the face of the earth’s dispossessed.

With 28 million children uprooted by conflicts and violence, according to the United Nations, more than half the world’s refugees are now under 18 years old. Think of every Parisian, Londoner, and New Yorker, in terror clutching a few possessions and escaping into the unknown. This is a new form of forced migration, and it does not fit existing policy frameworks. By virtue of their youth alone, the victims demand new approaches to protection and resettlement. For those that would offer them shelter, a growing body of research suggests that these children in flight also can present unexpected opportunities.

In the aftermath of World War II, when the world seemed a saner place, the United States and its allies developed a set of policies for refugees based on the assumption that whatever caused them to feel their homes would be resolved eventually. Civilized nations could promise “non-refoulement,” the right not to be returned to a place of violence or persecution, because the promise was only temporary.

Protracted turmoil in places like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen sends million fleeing with no expectation of return. In Central America and elsewhere unchecked climate change, economic stagnation, collapsing governance and uncontrolled criminality combine to spur what Alexander Betts, director of the Refugee Studies Center at Oxford has termed “survival migration.” These people have fled existential threats but do not meet the standard requirements for refugee status. Millions in this category come from countries that have disproportionately young populations in Africa and Latin America.

Even when temporary protection is possible or desirable, children in flight need more than a safe haven. They need a place to grow up. They need a home. As part of an initiative with the Pontifical Academies, we are gathering contemporary research that examines this new era of migration through the prism of children. And, abundant evidence shows that displaced children, even those with substantial experiences of trauma, can grow up healthy, sound and productive if given a chance.

Sources of resillience

A 2010 task force report on child refugees in the United States by the American Psychological Association found that despite enduring trauma and adversity, “these children and their families also demonstrate profound strength and resilience in their survival strategies, coping mechanisms and abilities to adapt within what are often completely unfamiliar environments.”

The sources of resilience are not always obvious. A six year Harvard study of 529 war-affected youth in Sierra Leone found remarkable improvement in mental health symptoms “over time despite nearly nonexistent access to mental health care.” The answer does not lie in individual characteristics. There is no special category of children with extraordinary capacities for self-healing. Instead, as the authors of another Harvard study put it, resilience “must be viewed as a dynamic process, rather than a personal trait.”

Research, our own and that of others, suggest that the process plays out in a physical and social environment that involves family and caretakers most immediately but also includes, peers, schools and communities. Just as war and flight imply a disruption, even a destruction, of all the elements of home, healing comes about with the rebuilding of a child’s social world. Fortunately, we know how to do that, and primarily we do it through schools

There are proven models, with strong academic programs, such as the International Networks School in New York City and the UCLA Community School in Los Angeles working with large numbers of refugees and immigrants. There are other schools in Europe and elsewhere our team has visited and studied. What do these schools have in common?

Proven models of “home”

First, they put the child and her world at the center of the educational journey. Teachers and counselors form purposeful advisory teams to meet new arrivals. They put in place explicit programs of instruction identifying each student’s incoming literacy and academic skills. All the promising schools we observed had systematic second-language policies and practices. And, instructional tasks, writing and arts in particular, become a venue for students to share their experiences with loss, trauma, and adjustment to a new place.

Teachers mind the socio-emotional needs of their students. Above all, the teachers quickly learn to multitask. A teacher working with unaccompanied minors from Central America says, “In addition to being a teacher, I am a psychologist, sometimes a mother.” Doris, her 16-year old student from Guatemala chimes in “I feel this is my home.”

And in that Doris articulated perhaps the most tried and true strategy for treating traumatized children. In the so-called English War Nurseries during World War Two researchers discovered that even children who had been buried in debris during a bombing could demonstrate suprising resilience if provided with a place that restored their sense of “home” as a place of healing.

Given the number of children on the move, putting such programs in place could be viewed as a simple act of self interest. Though only a fraction of the world’s displaced population never travels very far, enough are reaching Western democracies to have a long-term impact. In the U.S., Canada and most of Europe, the children of refugees and migrants are now the fastest growing sector of the child population. Their education and wellbeing is an imperative: Syrian children will be tomorrow’s nurses in Germany, cops in Sweden, and engineers in Holland. Ditto for Central American children in the U.S.

Despite many success stories, the overall picture is grim, according to a recent United Nations report. Refugee children are five times more likely to be out of school than their non-refugee counterparts. Among adolescents, many of whom have spend most of their lives in exile, only 22 percent have access to secondary education.

We have all witnessed the very substantial risks of failure. From the Pulse in Orlando to the Bataclan in Paris we have seen the forbidden costs of allowing alienation to fester among deracinated young people. Young people raised with no sense of belonging, will inevitably exact a price on societies that provide shelter but but no sense of “home.”

Francis gently insists

Beyond self-interest, beyond the humanitarian case, there are another set of imperatives most forcefully articulated by Pope Francis. When the Pope appealed last year to “the parishes, the religious communities, the monasteries and sanctuaries of all Europe to . . . take in one family of refugees,” he was invoking ancient virtues. More than simply offering shelter, he was extoling church institutions to give these strangers a new home, the kind of place where a child’s resilience can emerge. That is an act of caritas, more than simple charity it is an act of caring imbued with goodwill and justice.

The forces driving children from their homes today — war and terror, collapsing states, obscene poverty, environmental cataclysms — have superseded the expedient rules put in place by governments in more orderly times when temporary safe haven might suffice. Today millions of children need schools and communities that permit self-healing, and we now know that given a chance they will heal.

In any civilization, the ethic of rules and the ethic of care coexist in a delicate equilibrium. The sheer measure of the current migration catastrophe cries for a new balance. As Francis gently insists: today we need more caritas. And caritas begins at “home.”

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Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco is the dean of the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Roberto Suro is a professor of public policy and journalism at the University of Southern California.