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C&E

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

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Abstract
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. _____________________________________________________________________________________

Introduction

E

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
(cc) 2011

www.conflictandeducation.org

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

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

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

Mosselson (2011) Education creates a space in which the refugee can retreat from the ‘exotic’ or ‘foreigner’ label by becoming ‘students’. both the refugees and their classmates learn that refugee-ness has no place in their schools. or if I have nightmares. and felt anxiety and apprehension directed towards them from their teachers during their first few months after resettlement. I was a refugee. Conclusion C ultural hybridity is a defining feature of the lives of the refugees resettled in the West. and.” Another refugee describes having to watch a movie about living through war in social studies class. and it exposes how this posturing confines and encloses the individual. while their academic achievements are lauded and made central. but. As they studied and became more integrated into the schoolplace. difference remains marginalized. 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. setting her/him in opposition to her/his new society. because now they could talk to me. The refugees and their classmates have learned how to self-regulate and self-govern. 5 (CC) 2011 . being a survivor of war. but that no-one asked her about her own experiences. They have learned that cultural identity is both weak and strong in the ties the bind one to one’s ‘homeland. and now they could pretend that’s all I was—the A student who they could offer something tangible to: help. at the same time.]. acts as a technology of power. college advices [sic. this article challenges long-held beliefs about refugee adaptation in the United States. school support. being a refugee— are silenced and marginalized by the refugees themselves and by their classmates and teachers.’ and in terms of how one is identified. By exploring the way the identities of refugee youth are affected by their experiences of cultural hybridity and of schooling. and what is valued in the society and what is to be caged as not valued. in concert with education and schooling. and culture is being reproduced in the school place with the good student. they didn’t know what to do with me. They understood and they could clasp something they knew. Fadila confirms points made in the literature: by being able to identify with her as a student.’ Refugees speak about being seen as different. In that transformation. the legitimized and rational science of mainstream psychology ensures they also enter into a discursive trap that places them eternally on the periphery. 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. they were so happy. 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. The main argument demonstrates that while refugees enter into statelessness. the larger society. when I started getting As. hegemony is not disrupted. Psychology. they describe the attitudes of their schoolmates and teachers changing towards them as they become seen as students and no longer as refugees. Because getting good grades didn’t obliterate my memory. Their differences—being foreign. But of course I do. 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. But then. experience the silencing of their ‘refugee-ness. Fadila. which can be regained or replaced. by extension. however.

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