Letting refugee children play: a new rhetoric | By Tiffany Cao

A new rhetoric is beginning to replace the pragmatic “3 R’s” (reading, writing, ‘rithmetic) in the refugee classroom. Education ministers and program planners alike are now turning to an emphasis on  friendship and peer-to-peer interaction instead. Finnish Education Minister Sanni Grahn-Laasonen described Finland’s attitude towards the recent influx of refugees:

Children, they learn languages very easily so the first step is [for them] to learn the language and then [schools will] integrate children to normal classrooms as fast as possible so they will get friends, they will learn from them, and they will get the same opportunities as all the other children have in Finland.

The same emphasis on social education has been shared elsewhere. At Missoula School District in Montana, ELL (English language learner) teacher Aria Peters revealed that the Missoula school district’s program “provided peer mentors and buddies for the refugee students.” Even Nikos Filis, Education Minister of Greece, who rolled out an refugee integration program whose initial phase separated Greek and refugee students, couched his rhetoric in terms of students’ social engagement. “As long as they are in this country, refugee children will play with Greek children,” he announced.

The problem, however, is that the extent that refugee students can interact with local children only goes as far as the community consents. Xenophobia continues to pervade attitudes towards migrants. Daniel remarked in Across The Border: Cambodian Migrant Children in Thailand that local Thai parents feared and rejected the presence of Khmer migrant children in the Thai school system. In Greece, too, a number of parents in Thessaloniki protested refugee integration by singing the national anthem, parading the Greek flag, and delivering patriotic speeches in front of a primary school. The rich rhetoric of “play” and “buddies” is translating poorly to the local level.

Greek parents protesting refugee school integration. Source: YouTube

That’s the problem with optimistic declarations from the top. Education ministers, program administrators, and even large organizations like UNESCO  fall into the same trap. They use beautiful, ambitious language and commit to the realization of students’ humanity and rights in the classroom. Education for all. Refugee students will play and be friends with local students. Migrant students will have exactly the same opportunities as native children. When declaration becomes action, though, on-the-ground context – the fears and biases of the affected population – suddenly becomes real. The fruits of intercultural learning and social integration promised to refugee students in Finland, Missoula, and Greece only become possible where communities can align with the rhetoric of those at the top.


  • Davis, Chelsea (2016, Oct 9). Refugee students navigate new life in Missoula schools. Retrieved from http://helenair.com
  • Kolasa-Sikiaridi, Kerry (2016, Oct 6). 1,500 Migrant Children to Begin School in Greece on October 10. Retrieved from http://greece.greekreporter.com
  • Tornos News (2016, Oct 10). Refugee school classes start amid sporadic protests (vide0). Retrieved from http://www.tornosnews.gr
  • UNESCO (2007). A Human Rights Based Approach to Education for All. Paris: UNESCO. Retrieved from http://unesdoc.unesco.org
  • Will, Madeline (2016, Oct 6). Finland’s Education Minister Discusses New National Curriculum and PISA Scores. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org
  • Won, Daniel. (2016, Sept 26). Across the Border: Cambodian Migrant Children in Thailand. Retrieved from https://edinmotion.wordpress.com


One thought on “Letting refugee children play: a new rhetoric | By Tiffany Cao

  1. Lauren Matarazzo says:


    You did a really nice job of addressing the disconnect between rhetoric ‘at the top’ and what actually happens at the ground level. It is easy for those not immediately in the situation to put forth statements about what they believe should happen. Many organizations, such as UNESCO, advocate for integration of migrant children in their local schools but when it comes down to it, there are many issues that arise. Language barriers and varying reading levels may cause a teacher to slow down her lessons and give more attention and time to those who are struggling. Parents can easily become resentful when they find out that their child isn’t given much attention in class. The xenophobia that exists is terrible thing but it is important to address reasons why it may be there. This is not to say that it is justified in any way, but that the situation is much more complex. When it comes to education, especially, there is a lot more work to be done and fancy rhetoric just does not cut it.


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