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Understanding learning through acculturation, recognition, and school belonging: Life histories of Syrian refugee students in the UK


‘… maintaining my culture and values is very important; it is my identity, my origin that I can’t give up on … I belong to my culture even though there are so many aspects that I don’t like about it … However, it is necessary that we understand and respect the [new] culture … although I don’t feel strongly connected to it’ – Sultan, 14 yrs.

Like many other Syrian adolescents, Sultan is still negotiating and balancing his position within a new culture while trying to preserve his own, although it has been many years since he and his family left Syria and came to the UK. 


It can be argued that the needs and potentials of young refugees are rarely considered in states’ efforts to integrate refugees as members of the social, political and economic aspects of life [1]. Additionally, the dynamics of adaptation to the new host culture by refugee children have, so far, received limited attention, at least in the context of the UK [2]. Meanwhile, the dominant discourse that portrays young Syrians solely as traumatised victims of war, prohibits any attempts to understand the issues that pertain to their new lives [3].

Berry [4] suggested that the adaptation to a new culture is necessarily preceded by acculturation, a bidimensional and reciprocal process through which individuals and groups demonstrate different attitudes and behaviours towards the maintenance of the original culture, and contact and participation in the new host culture, yielding, as a result, one of four acculturation strategies: Assimilation, Integration, Separation or Marginalisation. 

However, when the dominant group imposes certain views regarding the process of acculturation, (e.g. hostile policies, negative host community perceptions), acculturative stress occurs, and issues of misrecognition and misrepresentation come to the fore, jeopardising any attempts to form a solid sense of belonging to the new culture of resettlement [5].

For young refugees, school is the social milieu in which they spend most of their time [6], and it is likely to be one of the first places where acculturation happens. Nevertheless, very few studies have looked at how this process might shape learning, another vital process in the lives of refugee students. 

Thus, my research portrays vivid narratives of Syrian refugee students, voicing their understanding of how their school played a fundamental role in directing the choices of their acculturation strategies and the impact of that on their learning. 

Acculturation and its relation to learning are investigated through Fraser’s framework [7] of social justice, in which parity-of-participation is achieved through recognition, representation and redistribution. Lack of these critical factors may impact the young Syrians’ sense of belonging to their school and may place at risk their learning, motivation and achievement [8].

The study includes life histories of 6 students, aged between 14 and 16 years old, of whom 4 identified as female and 2 as male. All participants were granted refugee status and were enrolled in an academy school in London. The selection criteria depended principally on their history of formal education; their academic achievement profile; and their personal and behavioural records, which were obtained after gaining the formal consents from the students, their parents and the school. 



Testimonies of the young participants implied that some of them preferred belonging to their own culture, where they were recognised, understood and welcomed. Others, on the other hand, were gravely discriminated against by representatives of both cultures including teachers, peers and members of both communities, while they were still negotiating their identities between two worlds, causing them, hence, to become excluded from both cultures. The data revealed that these orientations were associated with a poor sense of belonging to the school, reduced motivation to learn and low achievement. 


Omar (15 yrs.) and Sultan (14 yrs.) expressed how issues of misrecognition, i.e. not being treated as moral equals by teachers and peers [9], played a detrimental role and helped create a poor sense of belonging to school. They explained how teachers had already labelled them ‘troublesome Syrians’. Sultan spoke of his ‘desperate’ attempts to talk to teachers and prove that he aimed to be a good student, but ‘the damage is done’. He then began to see school as a ‘big graveyard for [his] ambitions and dreams’:

We were raised to respect teachers, but this is not a common thing here … teachers do not respect us as we do for them … how can I belong to a school when I’m being searched by a PC [police constable] every day on my way in? … How can I concentrate in class when I know that I’m being watched constantly? 

Omar, who had the word ‘ARAB’ written on his hand, so that ‘all people know who [he is]’, repeatedly voiced that he wanted to be transferred to another school due to issues of misrepresentation and the lack of being heard or seen by schoolteachers and staff. 

… [Syrians] are not allowed to speak … I’m not allowed to defend myself or tell teachers I didn’t understand the lesson … My English is still bad because no one helps me … I’m not learning anything because I’m constantly being sent to APS [10]. I sometimes spend 2-3 days there and I miss many lessons … I’m not going to achieve anything in my GCSE tests. 


Malak’s (14 yrs.) story illustrated a shift in acculturation preference over a course of three years. When she first came to school, she spent her time working hard to master English ‘with the accent’ and achieve good grades and was eager to assimilate into the school culture. Then, she was peer pressured to join one of the school ‘gangs’, and that was the point when her new search for identity began. 


… gradually, I hated how, in my culture, my brothers get to do everything they desire, while I should be the obedient girl who should guard the family’s honour and respect the rules … suddenly, there was this big conflict in my head …then, my grades were all bad, but no one at school listened or asked what was wrong …no one cared to help … so I started bunking [classes].


Consequently, ‘bunking’ turned into running away from school and self-harm; and instead of addressing the core reasons, the head of the year began reporting Malak’s behaviour to her parents, causing grave issues of mistrust between her and her mom, so she ‘hated home and school‘ and ended up losing interest in maintaining either of the cultures. 



This brief article summarises my ongoing PhD research that presents vivid case studies of young Syrian refugees’ perspectives on acculturation, recognition, representation and belonging within English society, and how their learning experiences in a London school are influenced by these aspects of social life. By employing life histories as my research approach, I aim to make central the voice of young refugees, an area that is seldom visited; and through these, I seek to present researchers, practitioners, teachers and policymakers with a chance to investigate and reflect on students’ perceptions, concerns and needs, and where they can, perhaps, innovate solutions to the educational issue at hand.


Notes and references

[1] Sidhu, Ravinder, and Taylor, Sandra. 2007. ‘Educational provision for refugee youth in Australia: Left to chance?’. Journal of Sociology, 43(3), 283-300.

[2] See Rutter (1994, 2006); Pinson and Arnot (2007); Candappa, Arnot and Pinson (2009, 2010); Candappa (2011); Walker (2011).

[3] Rutter, Jill. 2006. Refugee children in the UK. Maidenhead, Berkshire: Open University Press.

[4] Berry, John W. 1997. ‘Immigration, Acculturation, and Adaptation’. Applied Psychology, 46(1), 5-34.

[5] Van Leeuwen, Bart. 2007. ‘A Formal Recognition of Social Attachments: Expanding Axel Honneth's Theory of Recognition’, Inquiry, 50(2), 180-205.

[6] Riley, Kathryn. 2017. Place, Belonging and School Leadership: Researching to Make the Difference. London: Bloomsbury.

[7] Fraser, Nancy. 2008. Scales of Justice: Reimagining Political Space in a Globalizing World. Cambridge: Polity.

[8] Goodenow, Carol. 1993. ‘Classroom Belonging among Early Adolescent Students: Relationships to Motivation and Achievement’. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 13(1), 21-43.

[9] Fraser, Nancy. 2001. ‘Recognition without ethics?’ Theory, Culture & Society, 18, 21-42.

[10] A form of punishment that entails removing students from class to a disciplining office. 


Jumana Al-Waeli

Jumana Al-Waeli is a third year PhD candidate at the Institute of Education; University College London. Her doctoral research investigates the learning of Syrian refugee students in the UK through the lens of acculturation, recognition and belonging. She takes a qualitative approach that encompasses employing students’ life histories to tackle educational and sociological issues pertaining the adaptation of young refugees in the UK. She is a prospective associate fellow at the Institute of Education. She holds a master’s degree in effective learning and teaching from the UCL Institute of Education, that investigated the learning of Syrian refugee students in the shadow of trauma and displacement.

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