Let’s talk about immigration. It’s a hot topic right now and there are as many different opinions and issues concerning immigration around the world as there are immigrants. In America, Donald Trump has promised to build a wall across the Mexican border, stop all illegal immigration, and deport 11 million illegal immigrants from the country. Britain just voted to exit the European Union and one of the many reasons people voted to do that was to regain more control over which people, and how many, they allow into their country. And now, every country in the world is trying to figure out how to balance the moral and legal obligation to accept refugees with the obligation of all nation-states to properly care for and advance the interests of their existing citizens and other residents already within their borders.
There are a lot of buzzwords associated with topics surrounding immigration, but we’re going to focus on one: integration. No matter how restrictive a country becomes, our ever-globalizing world makes it inevitable that every country around the world is going to become more and more diverse within itself, and it is important moving forward that we try and figure out how to welcome immigrants and refugees and integrate them peaceably into the culture of the country they are entering, without casting aside their own cultural heritage.
This is where we come to education. There are many factors that play a role in how well a person, or group of people, can integrate into a society, but they can mostly be broken down into three categories: knowledge of the host-country’s history and cultural norms, knowledge of the native language, and opportunities for employment. The common thread that connects these three factors is education. Any immigrant, whether child or an adult, who wants to become truly welcomed by society, must try to learn the language and cultural norms of that society. Children learn what their peers expect of them and how to act by going to school. It is the most vital and connective institution in any modern society. A school is also where a child learns to communicate with peers. Even for native speakers, schools are where kids learn slang, develop their accents, learn norms for communication, gestures … the list goes on and on. The role of school in teaching language is even more important for an immigrant child, who simultaneously needs to learn academic content and the native language and communication norms.
School is also where children are educated about their host country’s history, and the myths and legends surrounding it. In social studies in America you will learn about the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, but you will also hear a lot of stories about Presidents and Founding Fathers. Ultimately, George Washington never cut down that cherry tree and Abraham Lincoln told plenty of lies, but these myths communicate something important about American culture and values. These are the kinds of things you learn in school.
Finally, one of the other goals of education is, of course, to provide someone with the knowledge and skills they need to find employment. If an immigrant has a job, a role and purpose in society he is much more likely to feel integrated into the country, and the society is more likely to reflect that feeling, especially if they work in a diverse workplace with non-immigrants and immigrants alike.
If we accept the premise that education is one of the most important facets to integrating people into a new country, we must look at how immigrants tend to fare in educational systems around the world and what changes we can make in order to improve their chances of succeeding.
The fact is, unsurprisingly, that school is typically harder for immigrant children. Many do not know the native language they are being taught in, their needs and skills are not addressed, and many come from poorer families.
The most important step in addressing these problems is to treat immigrants as an asset, not an obstacle. Children who are native in another language can bring a new perspective to a classroom, and knowing (or learning) two languages is an extremely valuable, marketable, and impressive skill. In addition, while having students who do not speak the native language fluently may seem like an obstacle at first, it can instead be viewed as an opportunity for a teacher to learn how to communicate content through many diverse ways, which will benefit all students, not just New Language Learners. Having multiple cultures in a classroom will also allow for different perspectives to enter into that classroom that would not have been there before. If a teacher recognizes this value, she can use it as an opportunity to expand on lessons like world history, religion, literature, and so much more. The presence of immigrants in a culture and a school must be viewed as an opportunity, not an obstacle.
As Europe and the rest of the world become more diverse and accept more immigrants and refugees it is vital that we turn to our educational institutions to help with integrating these newcomers and to treat them as dignified people with as much to offer their new country as their country has to offer them. There is no better thing we could do in order to encourage unity and reduce violence and animosity on every side.