How can schools support children of immigrants?

Meet Dalia Abdelhady, sociologist at Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University, currently working on a comparative study of the experiences of children of immigrants in four European countries and the United States.

Why did you choose to go into the field of migration studies?

I started out studying migrants from Arab countries to Europe and North America being an immigrant myself. I wanted to talk to others with experiences that are somewhat similar to mine but also somewhat different and try to understand how mine is similar or different to others. That is how I got into migration studies. When studying people who experience migration themselves it became an obvious question: what about their children? I wanted to know what happens to them and how they experience things differently. Now that I have children of my own, it has become even more important to understand what kind of future does my son have in this world.

More precisely, what does your research on children of immigrants investigate?

Specifically I look at children of immigrants’ experiences in educational systems. Schooling systems are very different around the world. School experiences definitely affect what they do afterwards: whether they go to university or start to work. It also affects their understanding of who they are: are they immigrants, French or children of refugees? I start out by looking at their school experiences and then I connect that to what happens to them after they leave school.

What are your major findings?

Unlike what most people think – that children of these minority groups, even if they are born and raised here, do not want to be like “us”, do not want to be part of our society, do not accept our norms and do not want to succeed in the way we do – I am finding that they are very motivated and that they really want to succeed. However, institutional structures and the educational systems are letting them down. Oftentimes it is the individual teachers who are letting them down by not helping them realize their potential. Teachers have very low expectations of them. When a teacher expects you to fail from the very beginning, chances are that you are going to fail. When the teacher sets high expectations of you it motivates you to actually do well. Many of the people that I study find themselves having to fight the institutional structures to prove themselves right. For instance in France, where the educational system is very stratified and there are tracks, the teachers decide the track in which the students end up. Students are put in the lower track despite high grades and despite the student’s interest in doing better.

The other finding, which makes more sense in the case of Sweden, is related to what they do after school. A lot of children of immigrants end up being self-employed. It is the place to avoid discrimination and being in charge of their own future. That is supposedly a factor of their experiences with discrimination in applying for different jobs. Other people have done studies showing that you can send the same resume to the same jobs with different last names and only certain names get called for interviews while certain names do not get called for interviews. Having experienced that many of the people that I study find that the only way to avoid discrimination is starting their own business.

What can we gain from this knowledge?

We can definitely use it to better train teachers in being more available and understanding of the experience of second generation of immigrants providing them with support mechanisms to help them continue to university. The other thing the findings make us think about is ways to minimize discrimination and prejudice in the labor market. I think Swedish society and policy makers need to think more seriously about these questions. Integration is something that works both ways. The individuals themselves should have a desire to integrate but society itself needs to have a system to integrate them. While we cannot say that everyone is ready to integrate but at least for those who are I think the system needs to be more accommodating to them.

Do you think as a researcher you have the responsibility to make your research results available to the relevant target groups e.g. people working within the educational system?

I do not think it is the responsibility of the researcher per se. I think making the research available is a very important first step. Raising awareness how the problems are on both sides of the integration equation is also an important first step. It will allow us to stop blaming the victim. Once we have done that we can ask ourselves how can we make things better. I think dialogue with policy makers as well as school professionals is important. But I do not think it is my job as a researcher to tell them what to do. They have more experience than I do with teaching in schools but just being aware of the findings can make them think of what to do differently. Personally, I am very hesitant in claiming that we as researchers are good at solving the problems. I think we are good at identifying the problem but we are better off leaving it to others to actually think of solutions. I can explain my findings to a teacher but I should not tell a teacher how to do their job better. The part we can work on is how do I make them listen to my findings.

Text: Anna Hellgren

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