Conflict & Education
Informed Policy. Improved Schools.

-An Interdisciplinary Journal -

Engaged Research.

Conflict, Education and Identity
Resettled youth in the United States
Jacqueline Mosselson, Ph.D.
University of Massachusetts Amherst USA


Education is a key site for social and cultural learning. For diasporic populations, the schoolplace is an important site for learning about their new host cultures but thus it may also serve as a site where their ‘outsider’ status is reinforced. This article explores the paradoxical role schools play in the lives of resettled refugees in the United States and the ways in which it manifests in their identity constructions. Psychology, as a technology of power that forms a strong foundation in US schooling approaches, serves to reinforce the notion of refugee-ness as a condition to be overcome, even in this era of cultural hybridity. _____________________________________________________________________________________



ducation and educational attainment are important contributing factors assisting the reintegration of identity in exile and the successful creation of a new life. A key goal of education is the (re)production of culture, reinforcing hegemonic structures. Schools thus become important sites for identity struggles, a factor which is particularly poignant for those who find themselves on the outside of the hegemonic understandings of the self, as refugees most surely are. Psychology and schooling are intertwined in the modern US era (Popkewitz 1998). Because of the many barriers placed in their way as foreigners, a continuous theme in the literature about refugee schooling in the United States is the extent to

which refugees advocate in order to gain access in their schools. Refugees also speak about the many ways in which they are silenced when they need help, and then are offered it once it is no longer needed. They describe instances of their refugeeness being overlooked in their school place, and of it being misunderstood. For example, Nadia, a refugee from Bosnia, explained, “everyone at school, well they don’t think it’s such a big deal because I was never blown up. And they laughed when I said, well, in the war, I was afraid.” While there may be many explanations for each of these behaviours, it is indicative of the notion that refugee-ness is a condition to be overcome, and once ‘overcome’—in quotes since the refugees make it clear that it is clearly not overcome—they will be helped.

Mosselson, J. (2011). Conflict, Education and Identity – Resettled Youth in the United States Conflict and Education, 1:1
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Both in the provision of a safe and caring atmosphere and in the seeking of outside support. Schools ideally play a key role in creating a sense of national identity. but of governmental decisions based on a combination of legal guidelines and political expediency. Their priorities have changed.Mosselson (2011) Refugee Youth Refugees and Schooling Community structures. Refugee youths witness the collapse of the imagined community (pre-conflict phase) and find themselves ensconced in a new imagined community (resettlement phase). values. a nation relies on schooling and education to socialize its young into the ideas. “a common understanding of identity in terms of what is imagined” (Waters and LeBlanc. including schools. are disrupted by war or other events that turn residents of one society into refugees relocated to another society. Willis. 1971. a sense that is rare among most adolescents whose assumptions have not been so challenged. The refugee experience also disturbs a child’s overall cultural identity: knowing where they come from. 129). 2002). 2005. Schools play a unique role in socializing their students (Althusser. Survivors have learned that life is fragile and this can lead to a loss of faith in the future. schools can make a difference to the further adjustment of children who have been unwitting victims of adults’ failures to resolve differences other than by war. The loss of feelings of safety and security is compounded by the loss of a daily routine and the lack of future orientation that schooling provides for many students. Foucault. 1981). where they belong and how they fit into the scheme of things—in effect. Bourdieu and Passeron. 1994). both the coercive aspects of social reproduction and the creative forces of cultural production provide liminal spaces for the 2 B eing a refugee is not a matter of personal choice. 1999. thinking they should have done more to help others and remembering what they did to survive. Schools are in a vital position to ensure that help is offered. As an imagined community. Students’ adaptation to “schools is mediated by a variety of intracultural and intercultural factors. 1977. passing through other communities along the way (conflict phase and temporary settlement phase). and is almost always arbitrary in terms of actual experiences. 491).’ including feeling guilty for surviving when others died. Some feel that they should live each day to the fullest and not plan far ahead. Schools furnish refugees with opportunities to discover and experience—both positively and negatively— culture in a unique way. 1977. Others realize they had been overly concerned with materialistic or petty matters and resolve to rethink their values. As a public institution. Along with the traumatizing effects of the refugee life on the mental health of adolescents are the negative consequences in terms of the child’s cognitive. (CC) 2011 . This disjuncture between their own cultural values and socialization history and those of the new culture can be keenly felt in the school place. social and emotional development. These then have an impact on their educational and emotional potential (Kaprielian-Churchill and Churchill. who they are. Many experience ‘survivor guilt. and beliefs of its citizenry (Sinclair.” and a major problem is that “these factors generally remain confounded or interact with each other” (Portes. For young refugees in schools. schools are one of the most continuous institutions in youths’ lives. Schools support existing power structures and socialize young people to their roles in these relations.

was that until one becomes like the mainstream group. 1977. theories of ethnic identity primarily followed developmental stage models. Psychology creates a developmental discourse that regulates and encloses the range of conditions of possibility within which the human life course can make sense: it universalizes the refugee experience with the result that “refugees stop being specific persons and become pure victims in general” (Malkki 1996. 129). Much of the literature on refugee schooling points to the ways in which refugees are let down by their educational experiences. one remains peripheral. 378). passive. and subjective meaning brought to the experience by the survivors. cultural hybridity. Historically. Burman et al 1996. if any. Mainstream psychological discourse is increasingly critiqued as being grounded in racially biased. by discussing ‘ethnic identity’ there is a presumed non-ethnic identity. but the discourse around refugees brings into question its neutrality. 713). Schools therefore play a paradoxical role in the lives of refugee youths. Current psychological paradigms epitomize a normative approach with “a single. 2002). and.Walkerdine 2000). Membership in a certain group necessitates exclusion of another group. therefore.Mosselson (2011) youths to learn how to navigate the new culture and society. recognition of the role that transnationalism.. Gordon 1964). This cultural ‘swap’ was deemed appropriate and constituted the total transformation of ‘immigrants’ into ‘Americans’ (Morgan 1978). shared. Identity “is at least partially given for different people in different ways and intensities. a ‘they. beneficial. transhistorical refugee condition” (Malkki 1995. people who are ‘imagined’ to be … nonmembers. European epistemologies (O’Loughlin. and diasporic public spheres play in the lives of refugees and immigrants in the contemporary world. Theories of ethnic identity development exemplify this point. Psychology presents itself as a rational. and participates in the social and cultural reproduction of hegemonic society becomes apparent with this lens. Barth (1969) defines the boundaries of ethnicity as socially constructed and socially maintained. Phinney 1990.g. “refugees are by definition.’ and by default. 96) paradigms. The implication. inevitable life story. controls difference. of course. but they also offer opportunities for learning the hegemonic ways of the new imagined community. 1965. Foucault.’ Mainstream psychology focuses on the individual external to her own context. There is little. thus Hall (1998). 511) that proceeds as if all refugees have one common. For refugees.’ According to Waters and LeBlanc (2005. inescapable. 1964. Bodies are marked as different and often as negatively different to the dominant cultural system” (Boyarin & Boyarin 1993. essential. and ethnic identity is based on how a person is classified by others (Gordon. Mosselson. Broughton 1987. with linear progress towards a goal. …[And] the misery and horror of war is reduced to a technical issue tailored to Western” (Summerfield 2001. this discourse has been used as a way to ‘understand’ refugees “regardless of the background culture. current situation. 1996. often assimilation (e. points out that identities are derived from identifying difference between 3 (CC) 2011 . schools define a ‘we.” Refugee Identity and Schooling E xisting theories of identity development can act as technologies of power that enclose and confine the individual (see. The ways in which psychology maintains the marginalization of some demographic groups in society. the previous culture must be replaced by the new culture. apolitical science. The process was unidirectional. among others. 2006). they may be places where the refugees are highly aware of their “foreignness”. which acts as the ‘normal’— an assumed ‘us’ compared to an assumed ‘them. for example. In creating the imagined community.

221). In presenting development in a majority group-ethnic group dyad. Refugee-ness is constructed as a condition to be overcome—while at the same time. but the production of norms that separate and divide according to the available sensitivities. psychology and schooling are inextricably linked (Popkewitz 1993. a condition that can never be overcome. 98). individualizes. Identity then becomes the mediating place between the external and the internal. Identity also remains about membership in the nation.Mosselson (2011) ourselves and others. Reasoning about children as populations makes possible a particular type of governance. identity development is seen as relational—the Hegelian self in relation to self as well as self in relation to others. Psychology acts as the “dominant ideological [discourse] of our age” (Lichtman 1987. First. and together schooling and psychology act as technologies of power that mold socially acceptable behaviors. full of contradictions and ambiguities. 1977) that nations were established to keep their citizens contained. It is also a system of reasoning that normalizes. legitimating non-intervention and relocating the distress from the social arena to the clinical and individual arenas (Summerfield 2001. 1987). is the “ethnic’s” social reality apparently defined by her relationship with the “non-ethnic”? In an attempt to move away from this majority group/minority group dyad. Defining how people ‘fit into’ a group as defined by particular sets of characteristics. and divides. distinguish and normalize what the child is and is to become (Popkewitz 1998. and “the discursive spaces function to intern and enclose the child within the normalizations that are applied” (Popkewitz 1998. 1998. From this perspective. psychology “performs an ideological function” (Broughton 1987. Children are treated in certain ways by educational systems. and we know from Foucault (1965. then. Being a refugee becomes a condition. ‘refugee-ness. The concept of ‘refugee-ness’ is one such a discursive space. 2000) approaches identity as a circuit of culture: identities are produced. Identity becomes positioned in terms of the hegemony (Walkerdine. achievement and the interactions between teachers and children. why. 29). act as technologies of power that seek to create ‘docile bodies’ and hence miss many opportunities for cultural hybridity and assistance to the refugees. The principles of reasoning discriminate. They are how the children learn to self-regulate and self-govern. 22). schools are an important site for cultural hybridity and identity struggles. 127). schools. is more than just a way to classify. consumed and regulated within culture—creating meanings through symbolic systems of representation about the identity positions we might adopt. 4 (CC) 2011 . The psychological categories into which the refugees are placed represent the effects of power. 510) that must be contained. Much of this work takes place in the school place. The categories can be thought of as norms and as an integral part of the ideas concerning children’s development. then.’ The normative perspective of refugee identity development is reinforced and proceeds as if all refugees “shared a common condition or nature” (Malkki 1995. in concert with traditional psychology. their parents and their teachers. dispositions and awarenesses. naturalizing social stratification. Secondly. The literature points to two main findings vis á vis the school system. If we are all to gain “a sense of self within social reality” (Erikson 1968. but that identities are fragmented. the individual and the group. Schooling as Confining Identity I n the Western contemporary era. This governing is: Not only what is cognitively understood. 53). du Gay (1997. and this treatment has the effect of regulating those children. to the local community and to the wider society. 2001).

In that transformation. By exploring the way the identities of refugee youth are affected by their experiences of cultural hybridity and of schooling. The refugees’ loneliness remained part of their experiences of schooling even as they achieved academic success and began to be more accepted by their peers. because now they could talk to me. the larger society. Their differences—being foreign. The main argument demonstrates that while refugees enter into statelessness.’ and in terms of how one is identified. in concert with education and schooling. and it exposes how this posturing confines and encloses the individual. when I started getting As. They have learned that cultural identity is both weak and strong in the ties the bind one to one’s ‘homeland. As they studied and became more integrated into the schoolplace. they didn’t know what to do with me.’ Refugees speak about being seen as different. this article challenges long-held beliefs about refugee adaptation in the United States. acts as a technology of power. both the refugees and their classmates learn that refugee-ness has no place in their schools. by extension.Mosselson (2011) Education creates a space in which the refugee can retreat from the ‘exotic’ or ‘foreigner’ label by becoming ‘students’. and.]. Because getting good grades didn’t obliterate my memory. and what is valued in the society and what is to be caged as not valued. The refugee is contained. those around her may silence or overlook her refugeeness: she is transformed. a 22 year old refugee from Bosnia explains: Before I proved myself in high school. I was a refugee. 5 (CC) 2011 .” Another refugee describes having to watch a movie about living through war in social studies class. the legitimized and rational science of mainstream psychology ensures they also enter into a discursive trap that places them eternally on the periphery. which can be regained or replaced. but that no-one asked her about her own experiences. however. being a refugee— are silenced and marginalized by the refugees themselves and by their classmates and teachers. The refugees cite daily reminders of these lessons claiming feelings of invisibility even as they become more connected to those around them: “They never ask me whether I still think of the war. Conclusion C ultural hybridity is a defining feature of the lives of the refugees resettled in the West. difference remains marginalized. Psychology. They understood and they could clasp something they knew. but. and now they could pretend that’s all I was—the A student who they could offer something tangible to: help. Fadila confirms points made in the literature: by being able to identify with her as a student. school support. But of course I do. college advices [sic. setting her/him in opposition to her/his new society. The refugees and their classmates have learned how to self-regulate and self-govern. at the same time. while their academic achievements are lauded and made central. hegemony is not disrupted. they describe the attitudes of their schoolmates and teachers changing towards them as they become seen as students and no longer as refugees. they were so happy. or if I have nightmares. Fadila. and culture is being reproduced in the school place with the good student. being a survivor of war. and felt anxiety and apprehension directed towards them from their teachers during their first few months after resettlement. experience the silencing of their ‘refugee-ness. But then. They were afraid of what I’d seen and they didn’t know how to handle a kid who had seen the worst of life when they couldn’t imagine it.

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