SPEAKING Refugees’ LANGUAGE

By Joseph Kays

When Jody McBrien, PhD, pursued her doctorate at Emory University in 2001, she came to fully appreciate how difficult refugees’ lives could be.

“I volunteered as a tutor at a refugee organization and quickly fell in love with the kids,” said McBrien, a full professor in the School of Education, with a courtesy appointment in the Department of Social Sciences. “Refugees are at their largest population since World War II. It is critically important that the world understands who they are and how to support them to become contributing citizens in their new societies.”
McBrien says it took time to gain the trust of refugees from war-torn areas.

“Eventually, they started to tell me about their lives. Some of their background stories were devastating,” she said. “They also dealt with discrimination from some of their U.S. peers and teachers, particularly Muslim students.”

McBrien has kept in touch with several of the students she worked with in Atlanta while at Emory and says she is inspired by their successes.

“One of my research participants has her master’s in education from the University of Georgia, and another has a medical research master’s from Vanderbilt,” she said. “Two others have undergraduate degrees in education. All are now American citizens.”

Over the past 17 years, McBrien has visited nine countries to research and evaluate educational policies for refugees and identify best practices. She spent time in August 2018 at a Greek refugee camp, and in 2017 she was a visiting scholar at Sōka University in Japan. Her book, Educational Policies and Practices of English-Speaking Refugee Resettlement Countries, was released in June 2019. She was selected as a Fulbright Specialist and plans to return to New Zealand in 2019 to conduct an evaluation of the newly built Mangere Refugee Reception Centre.

“Resettlement countries have similar challenges. We must learn from one another,” she said. “It’s important to consider successful programs so that we can compare and adapt best practices.”

McBrien says language is always a major challenge for newcomers, something she learned first-hand while participating in a USF immersive Spanish program in Panama in 2008.

"Refugees are at their largest population since World War II. It is critically important that the world understands who they are and how to support them to become contributing citizens in their new societies."

Research: USFSM

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“I wish all my students could have that opportunity because then they might realize that when their foreign students fall asleep in class, it’s because they’re exhausted from trying to understand English,” McBrien said. “In Florida, we have a tremendous number of immigrants, so teachers are always going to have these students in their classes. When teachers do not have courses and experiences in international cultures and languages, it’s more difficult for them to know how to support immigrant and refugee students. Unfortunately, the Florida Department of Education has eliminated required courses on social issues from teacher preparation programs.”

McBrien says New Zealand, where she was a policy fellow in 2014, “has a uniform, research-based, and successful English language program implemented throughout the country. Unfortunately, we do not have anything like it in the States, so we keep reinventing the wheel.”

McBrien also helps her students appreciate the challenges of diversity by requiring them to participate in an activity that challenges their beliefs. For example, a student who identifies as a Democrat might go to a Republican meeting. A student who is monolingual might go to a Spanish-speaking restaurant.

“I want my students to experience something outside of their beliefs and perspectives,” she said. “The vast majority respond that they had no idea about how the other side looks at things. They reflect increased empathy because of the experience.”
In addition to her teaching and research, McBrien has been active in promoting refugee events at USFSM, such as last year’s World Refugee Day commemoration.

“Our understanding of refugees and who they are is problematic,” McBrien said. “Unfortunately, there is so much misinformation, and many people have come to believe refugees are terrorists. In fact, refugees flee terrorism. Citizens need correct information about how much refugees appreciate resettlement in the United States to begin their lives anew, how hard-working they are, and how much they contribute to the U.S.”

Image of Jody McBrien, PhD, working with volunteers at the Ritsona Refugee Camp in Greece.
Jody McBrien, PhD, works with volunteers at the Ritsona Refugee Camp in Greece.

 

“Resettlement countries have similar challenges. We must learn from one another,” she said. “It’s important to consider successful programs so that we can compare and adapt best practices.”

McBrien says language is always a major challenge for newcomers, something she learned first-hand while participating in a USF immersive Spanish program in Panama in 2008.

“I wish all my students could have that opportunity because then they might realize that when their foreign students fall asleep in class, it’s because they’re exhausted from trying to understand English,” McBrien said. “In Florida, we have a tremendous number of immigrants, so teachers are always going to have these students in their classes. When teachers do not have courses and experiences in international cultures and languages, it’s more difficult for them to know how to support immigrant and refugee students. Unfortunately, the Florida Department of Education has eliminated required courses on social issues from teacher preparation programs.”

McBrien says New Zealand, where she was a policy fellow in 2014, “has a uniform, research-based, and successful English language program implemented throughout the country. Unfortunately, we do not have anything like it in the States, so we keep reinventing the wheel.”

McBrien also helps her students appreciate the challenges of diversity by requiring them to participate in an activity that challenges their beliefs. For example, a student who identifies as a Democrat might go to a Republican meeting. A student who is monolingual might go to a Spanish-speaking restaurant.

“I want my students to experience something outside of their beliefs and perspectives,” she said. “The vast majority respond that they had no idea about how the other side looks at things. They reflect increased empathy because of the experience.”
In addition to her teaching and research, McBrien has been active in promoting refugee events at USFSM, such as last year’s World Refugee Day commemoration.
“Our understanding of refugees and who they are is problematic,” McBrien said. “Unfortunately, there is so much misinformation, and many people have come to believe refugees are terrorists. In fact, refugees flee terrorism. Citizens need correct information about how much refugees appreciate resettlement in the United States to begin their lives anew, how hard-working they are, and how much they contribute to the U.S.”

"I want my students to experience something outside of their beliefs and perspectives."

Another problematic belief is that conservatives are all against refugee resettlement.

“This is just not true,” McBrien said. “The CATO Institute, a well-known conservative think-tank in the U.S., produced a highly researched analysis in 2016 examining murders caused by terrorists in the U.S. between 1975 and 2015, including 9/11. The research discovered that the chances of being killed by a refugee in the U.S. is one in 3.64 billion. By an undocumented immigrant, one in 10.9 billion per year.

It is literally more likely that one will be killed by lightning than by a refugee or undocumented immigrant.”
Marcia Willingham-Wines, a former adult education teacher and now high school English teacher in Manatee County, has seen her share of teen and adult students over the years who were “either brought here by an adult when they were children, or who fled their country of origin.”

“I only wish there were more classes like Dr. McBrien’s due to the changing population teachers are encountering every year,” said Willingham-Wines, a USFSM graduate student. “The material in her classes serves as a solid foundation for a healthy appreciation of diversity.” Interdisciplinary social sciences student Yolanda Woody worked with McBrien on the World Refugee Day project and through The Global Society, an organization at USFSM dedicated to developing students as “global citizens in a globalizing world” and to raising global awareness.

“Dr. McBrien is a wonderful professor who cares tremendously about her students,” said Woody, who took McBrien’s online international human rights course. “I joined the class because the subject of human rights interests me and I would love to work in that field following graduation.”

McBrien says the administration at USFSM has been “incredibly supportive” of her work, underwriting some of her international travel and giving her the flexibility to pursue her research. Since joining the faculty at USF in 2005, she has produced over 40 research publications, with over 1,400 citations from international scholars.

“In March 2019, I was surprised with an invitation by the Turkish government to pay my travel to Istanbul in April to consult about best educational practices for Syrian refugees,” she said. “Turkey currently resettles the largest number of refugees in the world. I was honored. My dean and chancellor are fully supportive.”