University of Sussex
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Difference and encounter: psychosocial support and secondary education for young migrants and refugees in the UK

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posted on 2023-06-10, 04:24 authored by Emma Soye
‘RefugeesWellSchool’ (RWS) is an EU-funded project which aims to improve migrant and refugee wellbeing through school-based psychosocial support in six European countries. It includes interventions in two UK secondary schools, in East London and Brighton & Hove. The RWS project operates within an ‘integrationist’ framework which assumes that ethnonational differences are of primary importance in the peer relationships of young migrants and refugees. This thesis critically examines this assumption through comparative ethnographic research on the peer relationships of young migrants and refugees in the two UK schools. It considers the differences that ‘make a difference’ (Berg et al., 2019) to young people and explores the influence of secondary education and psychosocial support on how they relate to each other. The thesis uses Martin Buber’s (1937) ‘I-It’ and ‘I-Thou’ concepts to frame the interplay of social bonding (the making of ‘difference’) and bridging (moments of ‘encounter’) within and across multiple social differences at both schools. In doing so it contributes new insights to the ‘integration’ and ‘conviviality’ literature, challenging reductive ethnonational understandings of the rich complexity of young people’s peer relationships. The research took the form of 38 interviews with young people, school staff, parents, and local community workers; 16 focus groups with students, intervention facilitators, and school staff; and participant observation in both schools over a 14-month period. The findings show that peer relationships at ‘Bradbrook School’ in East London were characterised by relative ease with ethnic, religious, and language diversity. Experiences of precarity, however, fostered resentment among long-established ethnic minorities towards newcomers, and also contributed to neighbourhood violence in the form of ‘postcode wars’. Ethnicity, religion, and language were more divisive in peer relationships at ‘Seaview School’ in Brighton & Hove, where economic deprivation also influenced how young people related to each other. The thesis argues that Bradbrook and Seaview students used different forms of humour and drew on societal, familial, and personal memories to reproduce social boundaries in their peer relationships, as well as to subvert and transgress cultural categories in spontaneous moments of non-normative ‘encounter’. It also considers how support from the schools and the RWS project influenced young people’s capacity for encounter, illustrating how the type and amount of English language support significantly shaped newcomers’ peer interactions. Efforts by the schools and the RWS project to celebrate young people’s cultural backgrounds and to encourage recognition of their migration experiences sometimes had unintended reifying effects. Pastoral support was found to be critical in the context of precarity. The thesis draws on Buber’s (1947) work on education to explore how the two schools and the RWS project promoted ‘dialogue’ with young people. The findings highlight the importance of vulnerability or ‘presence’ in dialogical practice and expose the adverse effects of national and school-level education policies on the capacity of teachers to be ‘present’ and to stimulate critical discussion in the classroom. They indicate that psychosocial support projects should carefully engage with social and political nuances in order to secure young people’s trust and to enhance, rather than institutionalise, the complex and sophisticated ways in which they negotiate their multiple differences on an everyday basis.


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