Impact of War and Torture on the Education of Newcomer Children and Youth
As Canadian schools increase in diversity, it is vital that educators are equipped with the resources needed to best serve Canada’s most vulnerable newcomer children and youth, particularly those who are survivors of torture and/or war. Teachers must be conscious that children and youth survivors have lived through unique experiences, have unique needs, and require specific supports to best support their educational development. However, despite their trauma histories and the barriers they experience during their settlement in Canada, children and youth survivors also demonstrate an incredible wealth of resilience, when they are provided with specialized assistance that empowers them to reach their potential. Teachers play an important role in fostering this potential, as the ability of the education system to recognize and respond to the needs of survivors can significantly impact the settlement and mental health wellbeing of these children, youth and families.
At the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture (CCVT), counselors provide mental health and settlement support to children, youth and families who are survivors of war, torture and/or organized violence. Unfortunately, children and youth may experience horrendous trauma in their country of origin, directly or indirectly. For example, children may directly become the targets of acts of violence, including kidnappings, beatings, rape, and forced labour. Other young people can be indirectly affected, as the trauma of war and torture may have a disorganizing effect on their family, thus impacting the family’s capacity to care for itself. For example, traumatized parents may find that their past trauma has corroded some of their ability to appropriately parent their children because they feel preoccupied, anxious or depressed. Finally, children and youth may also be impacted by indirect social trauma, when growing up in societies marked by widespread oppression and tyranny, where civil liberties are severely restricted. Due to the threat of detention and violence for one’s beliefs and values, children and youth growing up in these societies may never learn whom they can trust, and this can produce generalized feelings of insecurity and uncertainty, thus making it impossible for them to feel safe or hopeful about their future. The consequences of these trauma, are that children and youth may later experience a variety of mental health symptoms (examples include depression, anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, hypersensitivity, aggression, etc). Children and youth’s capacity for learning can also be significantly affected by trauma. Many survivors report memory problems (difficulty retaining information or learning new things), a lack of concentration, and a lack of confidence in their academic skills.
As newcomer children, youth and family survivors begin their process of integrating into Canada, many experience increased challenges. Unlike other immigrants, survivors of torture and/or war are often forced to leave their country, with little preparation, or knowledge of how to navigate Canadian systems. When they arrive, survivors must learn to cope with language barriers, poverty, immigration concerns, lack of affordable housing, lack of employment, and social isolation. Newcomer children and youth can also face intergenerational conflict with their caregivers, and cultural conflict around their identity. In addition, children, youth and parents may be unaware of the role of educators and about how the Canadian school system functions. It is therefore significant for teachers to understand that newcomers experience tremendous barriers during their settlement into Canada, and that these barriers may affect the behavior and learning of students in the classroom.
Educators hold a powerful position in the lives of children and youth survivors, as they are able to connect with them on a daily basis, to provide mentorship and academic support. Since mistrust is a common symptom of trauma, it is suggested that teachers make efforts to build the trust of survivors through reliability and confidentiality. This can have a monumental effect on the mental health of survivors, and increase their capacity to socialize and befriend others. Taking the time to build relationships with children and youth in non-intrusive ways (through extracurricular activities, sports teams, leadership groups, etc) can be an effective way for survivors to build trust with teachers, and to help them create a sense of belonging within the Canadian education system. In addition, it is suggested that teachers demonstrate flexibility and empathy when challenged by the needs of survivor students, and that they focus on the competency and strengths of these students. It is also important for educators to modify curriculum, or testing requirements, in order to better meet the needs of survivors. This may mean providing lessons at a slower pace, repeating concepts, providing extra time on tests, or arranging for homework assistance. Finally, it is suggested that teachers become knowledgeable on country conditions to understand the environments that newcomer children and youth are originating from, and that they become familiar with mental health related agencies where they can refer students for counseling and more specialized support.
Through our work at CCVT, we have seen many children and youth survivors of torture and/or war overcome the trauma and barriers they have been presented with, and go on to accomplish their goals. They are able to do this with the holistic support provided by other individuals, families and the larger community. Teachers and the education system are an integral part of the community, and thus, of the recovery of survivors. Teachers should therefore be encouraged and applauded in their work to best support children and youth survivors, as this population has demonstrated a great capacity to use the tools they have learned in school to make lasting and meaningful contributions to Canadian society.
1 According to UN Declaration against Torture, 1975, Article 1, "Torture" means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as
• Obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession,
• punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed,
• or intimidating or coercing him or a third person,
• or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”
2 World Health Organization’s Definition of Organized Violence (1986): The inter-human infliction of significant, avoidable pain and suffering by an organized group according to a declared or implied strategy and/or system of ideas and attitudes. It comprises any violent action that is unacceptable by general human standards and related to the victims' feelings.
Sidonia Couto, MSW, RSW
Sidonia Couto and Mbalu Wembo are children and youth trauma/settlement counselors at the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture. The Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture (CCVT) aids survivors in overcoming the lasting effects of torture and war. In partnership with the community, the Centre supports survivors in the process of successful integration into Canadian society, works for their protection and integrity, and raises awareness of the continuing effects of torture and war on survivors and their families. The CCVT gives hope after the horror.
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