Leaving Trauma Behind for a Brighter Future

In recent years, Canada has welcomed thousands of people seeking asylum, many of them survivors of war and torture. They come for the chance of a new life — but the shadows of the old one can block them from the best paths to a new one, education.

The after-effects of living through war and violence are a daily reality for refugees and asylum seekers. Their schooling may have been interrupted by war, or date from makeshift schools in refugee camps. Survivors may also experience after effects that diminish their ability to study, including memory and concentration problems, anxiety, insomnia and chronic pain.

Yet education remains their best chance at a successful life in their new country.

Jaswant Kaur Bajwa, a professor and research coordinator at the George Brown College’s Centre for Preparatory and Liberal Studies, is leading a project to help victims of torture and violence get access to post-secondary education. The project is a Community and College Social Innovation Fund grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

As things became more chaotic in Syria, Bajwa said, staff at George Brown began discussing how the college could accommodate refugees. Research shows refugees are less likely to pursue post-secondary education than other new Canadians and more likely to be unemployed or underemployed and earn less.

“The question was, what would happen to these folks when they came to school? Do we need to do things differently? Are there things the system needs to do differently?” Bajwa said in an interview. “Education is a really important determinant of whether they can move from the fringes to the centre of society.”

It is not just young refugees who need educations. Many well-educated refugees have left behind careers and need Canadian credentials to start again.

George Brown has partnered with the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health on the project. The two-year program has three phases. It will start with interviews and focus groups with refugees on what they expect from education, and the barriers they perceive to attaining it.

The next step is to use information from the interviews to adapt the curriculum for George Brown’s Transitions to Post-Secondary Education program to the needs of refugees. The Transitions program helps people with mental illnesses re-enter higher education. It teaches life skills, academic upgrading, career development and English courses. They will be tailored to refugee needs.

The final phase will be to introduce the new programs in two four-month terms, or in short-term workshops and seminars, depending on the themes. Follow up will include gathering feedback from participants and instructors and other evaluation.

Bajwa wants the courses to give refugees something more than the tangible benefit of education — hope. “Focusing on the here and now and the future is good for their well-being,” she said. “Evidence shows refugees do better when they look forward, not back.”

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