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ODU Report Takes Closer Look at Refugee Children Being Served in Virginia

By Betsy Hnath

A report by Old Dominion University researchers notes a recent increase in young children receiving services by the Refugee Resettlement Program of Virginia. It also aims to highlight current and potential gaps so that refugee children and their families are better aided in the future.

The study was conducted by the Darden College of Education's Angela Eckhoff, associate professor of teaching and learning; and Rebecca John and Rebecca Tilhou, current doctoral candidates. In it, the researchers state that, of the 14,129 individuals served by the program between 2014 and 2017, 4,933 were children ages 0-18.

Data were further broken down to show 984 of those children were preschool (ages 0-4) and 3,949 were K-12 (ages 5-18).

Though each year has seen an increase in all children receiving services in Virginia, the study reports the proportion of those in the youngest bracket has grown from .003 percent in 2014 to 14 percent in 2017.

Seven geographical regions, corresponding to agency offices, are resettlement areas for refugees in the state. Newport News ranks third behind Northern Virginia and Roanoke.

This influx of young refugees, the report notes, warrants close attention to be sure their specific needs, and those of their families, are met.

Through Virginia's Refugee School Achievement Program, families of K-12 children may receive assistance with school enrollment, translators for school meetings and extra tutoring programs.

Some localities, like Newport News, even offer sheltered classrooms for children new to the U.S. and in need of more adjustment to the language, culture, and educational system.

While most areas offer early childhood education to low-income families through Virginia's Early Head Start or Head Start programs, less is known about the families in those settings. And information related to children under preschool age can very be difficult to collect.

The most common countries of origin for refugees (including Afghanistan, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo) are ones most often in political or social conflict. Families emigrating from those regions can come to a new country and culture having already experienced trauma in their homeland -- an important factor for teachers to consider.

"As educators, we just see them arrive in the classroom, but we don't know what they've experienced before they've arrived," Eckhoff said. "We want to understand their experience so that teachers are better prepared to help them in their first critical years."

Rebecca John spearheaded the report as part of her dissertation work.

"The ultimate goal was to fact find about refugee resettlement and services for children in the state," she said.

John plans to follow up her report with deeper research.

"My dissertation will give a descriptive account of the experiences of kids and families that will help shed light on the strengths and unmet needs throughout that process."

Ultimately, goals include consolidating data to get a better, collective plan for refugee families in Virginia.

"A lot of times families receive services in different places. We don't know if what they get is helping because those places aren't talking with one another," Eckhoff said. "We're going to work on how to get the data we need and pass it along to those who can use it and understand the bigger picture. In a perfect world, I'd love to see the state prioritize early childhood and have a plan for these special kids and families."

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