TESOL 2017 Session: The Syrian Refugee Crisis – Implications for ELT Professionals

One English word all Syrian refugees know is “air strike.” ~ Ahmed Fahad, TESOL 17 Roundtable Session

April 4 is Refugee Rights Day in Canada. At ESL Library, we’ve been thinking a lot about refugees and their needs. As part of my own professional development in this area, I attended a roundtable session at the TESOL convention in Seattle a few weeks ago about the Syrian Refugee Crisis.

The session about refugees was in a large hotel ballroom with many other conversations going on at the same time. The turnout proved how important this subject is to TESOL professionals. The speakers, Mary Benedetti and Ahmed Fahad of the University of Cincinnati, did their best to speak as loudly as they could. Unfortunately, Professor Benedetti had laryngitis, which made it difficult for us to hear all of the useful facts she shared about this crisis.

What follows is a brief summary of what I was able to catch, along with some interesting comments from teachers in the field.

Summary of Facts

  • In Syria, there was a 97% enrollment rate in school before the war.
  • Syrian refugees have different needs than other newcomers and immigrants due to the suffering they experienced before arriving.
  • Before arriving in our classrooms, Syrian refugees have experienced poverty, abuse, hunger, discrimination, bullying, and homelessness (struggles they had no experience with before the war).
  • Many Syrian refugees are preoccupied with worries about family members and friends who remain in Syria or in camps.
  • The education system in Syria is very different from the education system in North America.
  • In Syrian refugee camps, many of the teachers have only completed primary school.
  • Many Syrian refugees have moved to urban areas with access to education, but they don’t speak the language of instruction.
  • Many refugees arrive in our classrooms with no documentation about how much schooling they have done.
  • Many young Syrian refugees have spent their whole life in camps. They are illiterate in their first language.

What the TESOL Community Needs To Do

  • hire bilingual staff (janitors, secretaries, administrators) who speak both English and Arabic
  • provide extensive community outreach for families
  • provide essential services in both Arabic and English
  • teach refugees how schools function in North America
  • recognize the background and skills of refugees
  • create strong transitional programs from primary to secondary school for refugees
  • recognize that some countries where Syrians are taking refuge have no experience teaching the native language as a second or additional language (e.g., Greek as a Second Language)
  • focus more on the assets that Syrians have that our media does not share (e.g., educated, gifted, skilled artisans, resourceful, critical thinkers)
  • brainstorm ideas and work together with TESOL members to address the Syrian Refugee Crisis as a global advocacy effort

From the Teachers’ Perspective

When the speakers opened the floor for comments, several teachers shared their own experiences working with Syrian refugees.

A Canadian teacher shared the fact that she and her colleagues did not expect how low the learners would be when they arrived. Many teachers do not have the proper training or materials to teach literacy.

A teacher from Iowa shared her opinion about the parents of the refugee students that are arriving at her school. She said they value education more than some other newcomers because education has always been a priority for them (e.g., a C+ may be considered a good grade).

Another teacher shared his concerns about a lost generation of Syrian refugees. There are many students who stopped going to school for a few years at a crucial time when they should have been transitioning from secondary school to college. These refugees need additional support to make sure they get back to school instead of entering the workforce.

Take-Aways for the ESL Library Team

At ESL Library, we have spent the past two years focusing on lesson sections related to real-world tasks. Lessons from our Functional English and Everyday Dialogues section are in high demand with so many refugees arriving in Canada, and many LINC teachers rely on these sections to supplement their own courses.

What ESL Library doesn’t have yet is enough materials for pre-beginners and those who are not literate in their own language. Developing literacy materials is a priority for our team this year, and we have one section in the works already.

We’re also working on adding to and improving our Flashcard section, which is of great use to refugees in the initial stages of learning a language.

While last year our professional development was centred around PBLA and the Canadian Language Benchmarks, this year we’ll be focusing on literacy. Please share any articles, research, and professional development opportunities related to literacy and ELLs.

Try our Historic Events Lesson about the Syrian Refugee Crisis


Canadians Adopted Refugee Families for a Year. Then Came ‘Month 13’


Leave a Comment ↓

  1. Tara Benwell says:

    Apr 07, 2017 at 9:30 am

    Here is a feature on 6 new Canadians: http://www.cbc.ca/news2/interactives/windsor_refugee/

  2. Tara Benwell says:

    Apr 06, 2017 at 9:06 am

    Watch this year’s #IATEFL Signature Event on this topic: Language for Resilience (on the role that language can play in enhancing the resilience of Syrian refugees and host communities) http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2017/session/british-council-signature-event

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