Empowering Refugee Students: Inclusivity in the Sex Ed Classroom

Empowering Refugee Students: Inclusivity in the Sex Ed Classroom

By Jessica Higgins, Communications Coordinator
August, 4 2016

Colorado Youth Matter’s Raising the Bar conference is coming up! We couldn’t be more excited, and we hope you’ll be joining us to celebrate recent advancements in youth sexual health – like the fact that more schools than ever are teaching comprehensive sex ed, and that unintended teen birth rates and abortions are dropping.

But despite these reasons to celebrate the advancement of youth sexual health in our state, there are still many challenges ahead. So in the spirit of Raising the Bar for youth sexual health and education, let’s talk about one big way we can better serve our youth in their sexual health education: inclusivity of refugees, immigrants, and different cultures in our classrooms.

With recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Nice, and Brussels, public anxiety and, well, terror of terrorism, seem to be at an all-time high. We hear politicians arguing that the United States needs to ban all Syrian refugees because of the threat they pose to American citizens, or even that we should ban all Muslims for the same reason. The problem with such statements in relation to a classroom environment is that they lead to ungrounded generalizations and harmful stereotypes. Students absorb media like sponges absorb water, and when it comes to hot button topics like immigration, Islamophobia, and the Syrian refugee crisis, there’s a good chance some of your students have absorbed harmful messages.

In fact, we know that they have, because incidents of discrimination and bullying against Muslim students have increased in recent years. According to a Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) report, 55% of Muslim students experienced some form of bullying in 2014. Perhaps more troubling, 1 in 5 American-Muslim students experienced discrimination from a staff member in the school.  This calls to mind the incident in Irving, Texas, when 14-year old Ahmed Muhammad brought a homemade clock to school and his teacher called the police, assuming the clock was a bomb based on nothing more than Muhammad’s race and religion.

It’s important to acknowledge these cases when talking about refugee students, specifically refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern or predominantly Islamic countries, because Islamophobia is often redirected toward communities that aren’t even Muslim. American Sikhs, for example, have experienced a rise in discrimination. So while not all refugees or immigrants are Muslim or Middle Eastern (actually, the largest group of US refugees are from Burma), the terror of Islam impacts all communities that Islamophobes believe “appear” Muslim. This perception of the “appearance” of Muslims (as though all Muslims are a certain race, share the exact same beliefs about their faith, practice those beliefs in the exact same way, dress a certain way, etc.) leads to discrimination of not only Muslims and students from Middle Eastern cultures, but any student who may “appear” Muslim or Middle Eastern.

The short of it is, in times of high anxiety and public fear, aggression toward people of different cultures, races, and faiths can increase, and in a school environment this aggression can manifest itself in bullying and discrimination. 

So how can we implement an understanding of this issue into the classroom environment? For one thing, know that your refugee, Muslim, or Middle Eastern/ Middle Eastern American students may be at a higher risk of discrimination and bullying from their fellow classmates, so be an advocate for these students when you can. Discourage fear and hate-based speech while understanding that your students who express this speech are most likely regurgitating what they’re hearing from the media. Remember that a sex ed class is a unique space, where students can be reminded right from the get-go in their group agreements to be respectful of every student in their class.

Furthermore, Islamic women or women who choose to wear the hijab are often uniquely targeted for being “oppressed.” If language like this pops up in your classroom, stand in solidarity with your female Muslim or hijab-wearing students. Empower them by reminding your class that wearing the hijab is a personal choice. After all, emphasizing the importance of personal, informed choices is key in the sex ed environment, because we want young people to feel proud of their identity and strong in who they are.

And, finally, remember to approach your refugee students’ education with the understanding that there is a strong possibility they are experiencing trauma. In the best case scenario, they have lost only their home; at worst, they have lost friends, family members, and have seen violence first-hand. Trauma can deeply impact the brain, so students who have experienced trauma may struggle with memorization, or be triggered easily. Be patient and empathetic, and always introduce material involving violence with a trigger warning and the offer that students should feel free to leave the room or skip certain lessons if they have to.

In short, sex ed isn’t just about educating youth on the biological aspects of sex. It’s also about empowering them to feel secure and safe in their identities, and about respecting the bodily autonomy of other people, regardless of religious beliefs, sex, gender, race, or culture. With the American public hotly debating refugees and Islam, especially in this contentious election cycle, think about how those messages impact your students, and how you can work to empower all students in a variety of ways in the sex ed environment. In other words, think about how you can Raise the Bar when it comes to this issue!