الشعور بالانتماء عند الطلاب من اللاجئين

Sense of Belonging in Students from Refugee Backgrounds

By Sonja van der Putten

Sonja is a PhD candidate in the Educational Theory and Practice: Curriculum and Pedagogy Stream at Simon Fraser University. Her research is focused on students from refugee backgrounds; settlement and belonging; education equity in higher education; Canadian education policy and decision-making; and the role of gender in equitable educational access. Sonja is currently a sessional instructor at SFU in the Faculty of Education, and she is a recent recipient of a Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate scholarship.

Sense of Belonging in Students from Refugee Backgrounds

December 01, 2021

Posted February 2, 2021

    Children and adolescents under the age of 18 years old make up over half of all individuals from refugee backgrounds worldwide (Children, n.d.). These children and adolescents have endured untold hardships, and the risk of abuse, neglect, violence, exploitation, trafficking or military recruitment, does not end upon resettlement (Children, n.d.). Host countries such as Canada, have a responsibility to consider the unique cognitive, social and emotional needs of developing children and adolescents being resettled in their communities, and one way to do so is through education (Conventions on the Rights of the Child, 2015). Education acts as a stabilizing force in the lives of children and adolescents from refugee backgrounds by protecting them from recruitment into armed groups, sexual exploitation and child marriage; by creating community resilience; and by empowering them with the skills and knowledge necessary to live meaningful lives (Education, n.d.).

    However, students from refugee backgrounds are challenged with integrating into Canadian school systems, where they may struggle to attain a sense of belonging amongst their peers, their teachers, and within their community (Frater-Mathieson, 2004). Biased media portrayals, prejudice, racism, and a general lack of understanding, are only a few reasons why a sense of belonging in their new communities may be a challenge to attain (Guo, 2019). Deprivation of belonging leads to negative outcomes, including emotional distress and increased health problems (Anderman, 2002). This is especially problematic for adolescents from refugee backgrounds who are already struggling with daily adversity in their lives, in addition to managing lingering mental, physical, and emotional stress they and their families may be experiencing from exposure to trauma.

    Education plays an essential role in creating a sense of belonging and preserving hope amongst adolescents from refugee backgrounds (Hoot, 2011). To feel a sense of belonging in school (SOBIS) is to feel connected to a particular group, to feel accepted by peers, supported by teachers and to feel supported by the school community (Chiu, Chow, McBride & Mol, 2015). A strong sense of belonging is related to positive academic, behavioural and psychological outcomes, including improved self-efficacy, motivation and reduced social-emotional distress (Kia-Keating and Ellis, 2007).

    Whether students from refugee backgrounds develop a sense of belonging in school depends on how connected and accepted they feel in their school. Many newcomer students struggle to make meaningful relationships with teachers and peers alike. One insightful student in the study I conducted on female high school students from refugee backgrounds noted that,

If you go to a new place, you should have at least one person to guide you and show you the way things work...otherwise, you’re all alone.

    (Qabila, personal communication, June 9, 2017)

    The challenges faced by students and families of refugee backgrounds do not stop upon their arrival in their host country, and Canada is no exception. The high cost of living in Canada, including the cost of food, transportation and housing act as ongoing stressors in the lives of students from refugee backgrounds. It is a societal responsibility to address ways to better support families financially, by providing them with skills and language training needed to support themselves.

…if newcomers come to the new school…we have to introduce them to others and get to know each-other…when we can relate to each other we can trust each other.

    (Qabila, Interview II, June 7, 2017)

    This holds true both in schools and in the wider community. Enhancing sense of belonging comes from meeting others, learning about and through others, and embracing newcomers for the skills, and strengths that they bring to our communities.  This responsibility must be shared by and between a diversity of sectors in our society, as it has long-term impacts on all parts of our societies, from the economic strength to the general health of our communities.

    Students from refugee backgrounds must be welcomed as an integral part of the school community. The onus should not be on the newcomers themselves to figure out how to belong. Few teachers and administrators take the time to get to know students from refugee backgrounds, and much like existing educational policies, tend to homogenize students into general categories, ignoring the distinct and unique needs of these students. The inequitable environment that students from refugee backgrounds find themselves in at school are reflective of and compounded by the vast inequities they continue to face in their communities, including poverty, language barriers, limited job opportunities, and insufficient health care access.

    Young people from refugee backgrounds enhance and strengthen the social fabric of our society, and as we continue to welcome thousands of people from refugee backgrounds to Canada annually, we have a responsibility to support them upon arrival and throughout the settlement process, both for their well-being and for the health of our wider society. We live in a society that values enriching cultural experiences, such as travel, foreign food, and international film. We must use the wealth of diversity we have here at home to learn more meaningfully about our newcomer populations, and to support the healthy development of our communities.



Anderman, E. M. (2002). School effects on psychological outcomes during adolescence. Journal of educational psychology94(4), 795-797.

Children. (n.d.). United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. Retrieved September 28th n.d., from

Chiu, M. M., Chow, B. W. Y., McBride, C., & Mol, S. T. (2015). Students sense of belonging at school in 41 countries: Cross cultural variability. Cross Cultural Psychology, 47(2), 175-196.

Convention on the Rights of the Child. (2015, August 18), United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. Retrieved September 28th, n.d. from

Education. (n.d.). United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. Retrieved September 28th n.d., from

Frater-Mathieson, K. (2004). Resilience. In R. Hamilton & D. Moore (Eds.), Educational Interventions for Refugee Children (53–63). London, UK: Routledge Falmer Publishers.

Hoot, J. L. (2011). Working with very young refugee children in our schools: Implications for the world's teachers. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 15, 1751-1755.

Kia-Keating, M., & Ellis, B. H. (2007). Belonging and Connection to School in Resettlement: Young Refugees, School Belonging, and Psychosocial Adjustment. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 12(1), 29-43.