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Trauma at home and away: The experience of refugee students in South African higher education

Wed, March 28, 5:00 to 6:30pm, Museo de Arte Popular, Floor: Ground Floor, Auditorium

Proposal

Refugee students frequently suffer the trauma of being stateless citizens as the pain they endured leaving their home countries is reproduced in their newly adopted countries (Maringe, Ojo and Chiramba 2017 forthcoming). At a macro level, the rights of refugees are protected in international law. However at country and institutional levels, refugee students, especially those in higher education, tend to face a life of destitution and exclusion as the same rights protected by international law are ignored and largely unapplied.
Through biographical narrative research, South African based refugee students in higher education tell stories of sustained pain, exclusion, deliberate silencing, poverty, hunger, homelessness, amongst others which reproduce the trauma they experienced in their home countries before fleeing to their newly adopted homes (Kavuro 2013).
As academic citizens in higher education institutions, these students report of wide gaps between pre migration expectations and the reality of living in their newly adopted countries. Universities generally classify refugee students as international students (Yemini, 2014), a group that has become the academy’s cash cows. With little or no financial backing, doors to life opportunities are effectively closed behind them. Their only useful resource for comfort and support is other refugee students who lack both the social and economic and sometimes the intellectual capital to cope meaningfully with life in a new country.
Despite all this, refugee students show remarkable resilience ((Kavuro, 2013; Wilson-Strydom, 2017) against all forms of adversity. Resilience has become their only meaningful capital to survive and navigate the challenges posed by academic demands and socio economic life. Our studies show that this new form of capital helps them to sustain a life of statelessness and trauma and comprises of the following:
• Closed circles of intimacy with members facing similar circumstances. These circles of intimacy are hard to break through by others with dissimilar credentials. Refugee students thus effectively become closed micro communities wherever they reside.
• Open and in some cases obligatory sharing of information about opportunities within the closed circles of intimacy. In one group, we found that all of them worked part time, though illegally at the same car wash, cementing their closeness and unfortunately maintaining their exclusion from main stream opportunities.
• Group approach to problem solving. If for example there is someone in the group who needs to regularise their papers at the DHA, they go as a group and not as individuals.
• Enlisting external expertise. This also done as a group and not individually. For example, a group will normally make use of the same proof reader for their assignments.
Closed communalism thus seems to be a dependable strategy for overcoming trauma, navigating the challenges of their academic and socio-economic lives and coping with the demands of day to day living. Universities need to play their part in alleviating the sustained trauma faced by refugee students in higher education. A starting point to engage with and support these traumatised stateless citizens would be to recognise their very existence within the academy.

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