What do Immigrant and Refugee ELLs Say About Their Experiences?

by Aydin Durgunoglu and Erin Cary

Graph showing numbers of refugees, asylum-seekers, and displaced people according to the UNHCRAccording to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), 108.4 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced as of late 2022 ( 

Although these statistics help illustrate the incredible scale of this problem, it is also important to understand how it is affecting individuals and their families. Recently, we have completed a small-scale implementation of our CILIA-T curriculum with approximately 50 adult English learners in four classrooms. The students came from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Some were new immigrants or refugees; others were long-term U.S. residents. Adult education programs provide one of the first support systems for refugees. In fact, the composition of adult education classrooms often signal the current areas of upheaval, as more students start coming from that region. We sent a Google form to our students, asking them to share (anonymously) a refugee’s experiences (their own or that of somebody they know).

Learners first shared about who refugees are: Where are they from? How old are they? What did they do in their home country? And most importantly: Why did they have to leave their home? Where is their family? They described the challenging experiences of others, like "Ali, a [39 year old] Somali refugee... When he was in his home country, he was a painter, and because of war, he left… and he and his family are separated. They are in Uganda," and themselves “I am a refugee from Ukraine. I had to leave my country because we were attacked by Russia, and my city is 30 kilometers from Muscovy."

Others described that "some come [from] refugee camps", have "displacement due to sexual discrimination", or leave "because some people who live in their country are scared." Refugees were also described by learners as "people who had to leave everything in their country because of the war" or those "who ran away from his or her country because of violent politics" "They are from many countries. Any age: adults, children. Because of the war, they have to leave their countries. Some of their family members died." 

The second prompt asked if that refugee was in adult education and how adult education was or was not helping. All respondents agreed that adult education was helpful. They shared that refugees are “ [in] an adult school and it is helping well” and that “it's very helpful, because everybody can be educated for free.” Respondents also listed specific areas in which adult education is useful, explaining that “all Somali people in adult education–it helps [their] English language [improve].” and it “helps you learn the new language and have better opportunities to [participate in] government.” Simply put, “if you are in education, it can help to have information.”

In the last prompt, we asked what adult education programs can do to help refugees. Participants mentioned basic needs in that “adult education can help to bring other people here because they aren't safe in their countries” and how “donation of food, clothing, emotional and psychological help” supports them. Other respondents talked about education in general and expressed that “giving them education for free is good” and that “adult [education] can help the refugees to get [well-educated]” and “it helps [to learn] language better.” One respondent mentioned more specific areas of education such as “English courses, civics, and workforce preparation and training activities” as areas that adult education can support adult refugee learners.

Even these brief responses highlight the suffering experienced by refugees worldwide, and provide some hints as to how adult education can play a role in addressing these traumatic events in refugees’ lives. Finally, these responses tell us that although some adult English learners may not yet have high levels of English proficiency, it is important to hear the deep experiences affecting them, as these conversations add value to adult education contexts and to our understanding of our fellow human beings.