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Abstract

The United States refugee resettlement program has been among the largest in the world, welcoming over 3 million refugees since 1975. The past decade has seen an increase in the number of refugee youth entering the United States; thus, schools are among the most influential institutions for newly arrived refugee youth and their families. Despite their significance, little prior research has examined refugees’ classroom and out-of-school time (OST) experiences; their levels of academic and social engagement; and the role of parental involvement, community organizations, teachers, and other school staff in their adjustment and success. Drawing on interviews with 47 students (ages 13–17) and their parents, this study examines patterns of student engagement among Muslim refugee youth and their families in Chicago. It provides empirical evidence of refugee families’ experiences of schooling in the United States, their perceptions of the social context, and their support needs. In terms of cognitive engagement, students conveyed an investment in learning English to excel in class and develop peer relationships. Related to behavioral engagement, Muslim refugee youth shared concerns around active class participation due to lack of confidence in their accents and acquired languages as well as an unfamiliarity and general discomfort with classroom, school-based norms in a U.S. context. Students described mixed feelings around their own emotional engagement with school, citing numerous examples of bullying and discrimination from teachers, school staff, and peers. Data analysis reveals that parental involvement included a welcoming and inclusive environment cultivated by school administrators, staff, and teachers who shared racial and ethnic similarities to the refugee families. Barriers to their involvement included a lack of English language proficiency; a lack of parents’ understanding of their need to be involved even if their children performed well academically; and discrimination and xenophobia instigated against their children, which caused parents to develop a level of distrust in the school leadership and staff and to disengage with the schools. Related to OST engagement, data analysis reveals that refugee boys are typically involved in sports-based programs while girls engaged in arts-based programs to reinforce their feelings of nostalgia for their countries of origin. Favored OST activities included programs offering academic support and homework assistance, encouraging refugee youths’ engagement both civically and politically in their schools and communities, and promoting their cultural and ethnic identities. A major resource for school social workers, mental health specialists, and other stakeholders, this research augments understanding of the experiences of Muslim refugee youth and their families and sheds light on the challenges, needs, and vulnerabilities of this understudied population.

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