"Home": Acknowledging the Complex Transitions of Refugee Newcomers

Drawing by former student Pah Leh Paw (age 9), depicting the Thai refugee camp where she grew up, after her family fled from the Karen cultural region of Myanmar Burma.

Drawing by former student Pah Leh Paw (age 9), depicting the Thai refugee camp where she grew up, after her family fled from the Karen cultural region of Myanmar Burma.

“I AM FROM . . .”

In my first year of teaching in the Newcomer sector, I remember feeling flabbergasted by one very real truth: our little four-walled classroom housed the world inside its perimeter. Out of the twenty-five students that first year, fourteen countries were represented in our classroom, with nineteen first languages among them. I still cherish this memory, and perhaps more so now that I’ve also acquired some understanding of the unique countries, customs, and languages that we have in our care.

I arrived as head of the classroom that year, the first year that our refugee-magnate school was set in motion, highly unprepared. I was fresh, sure, and knowledgeable in the field of education, too. I was also remarkably naïve. Armed with personal monologues of out-of-country experiences, I thought I was worldly, exposed, and ready. Then, I got schooled by a class of eight-year-olds.

When, for example, students stated, “I am from Burma,” I assumed, well, Burma. As in, one Burma, the one I located on Google Maps (just to refresh my memory . . . of course). As in, one culture, one language, one struggle, one united journey to our classroom.

That episode of simplistic thinking was short-lived. Within days, I figured out that several of my Burmese students couldn’t actually communicate orally with each other. Moreover, this group of students did not always appear outwardly friendly toward one another, despite their apparent cultural similarities. In fact, I was noticing intense tensions and aggressions between like-cultured groups, even while cross-cultural communications remained friendly and outgoing.

At one point early in the year, Snay Doh came to see me in private. He asked to move his seat away from his Thai peer, Thaw Eh Htoo. He wished to sit at a separate desk, between Valentin from Burundi, and Khaled from Yemen. “I don’t mind thinking about this, Snay Doh,” I replied, “but I hope that you can explain to me why this is a good idea. Moving your seat isn’t going to make a bigger problem go away. What is it that seems to be keeping you and Thaw from getting along?”

Snay Doh, with his limited English vocabulary, broke down the entire dilemma, with Crayola illustrations and all. In the end, I learned that Snay Doh’s parents were Burma-Burmese, and that he was born in the refugee camps in Thailand. Thaw Eh Htoo was also born in a Thai refugee camp. However, his parents were Karen Burmese. Not only were these two families from geographically, linguistically, and culturally separate parts of Burma; they were also at war with one another.

With a little more research, I came to realize that four rivers physically separate the small nation of Burma into five distinct geographical regions. Within these regions, a multitude of individual tribes maintain separate and exclusive lifestyles and cultures. Seven of these tribes demand high social and political prominence. These clans have an epic history of interaction, often involving warfare on every level and for every reason: territory, religion, water, trade, and government.

Members from five of these tribes held places on that first year roster. So, no; that original seating arrangement with four of those Burmese students, of four separate religions, customs and dialects at the same table didn’t work out so well. (Enter school-wide positive behavior system roll-out.)

Similar dichotomies are repeated each year in our schools and classrooms, and are reflected in the lives of our students from all over the world: Congo, Iran, Somalia, and Libya, and many others. The truth is that people who originate from one country are not necessarily homogeneous, or for that matter, oozing with camaraderie with one another. Fundamental views and values may vary dramatically, even to the point of enmity. For me, this lesson was critical. Indeed, we are never done learning.


Interestingly, our students’ documented countries of origination are rarely aligned with actual ancestral roots. This occurs primarily because many of our students are transported to (or even born in refugee camps) proximal to the heritage region.

For example, most Nepali refugees are Bhutanese. Many Thai students are Burmese. Our Kenyan students might be exclusively Congolese, Somalian, Rwandan, or Ethiopian. A Lebanese student’s first home may have been Syria, Palestine or Afghanistan.

Sometimes a spade is a spade; Congo really does mean Congo, and there is no need to complicate things further. But often, it doesn’t hurt to engage in a little sleuthing. The results can be astonishing. Frequently, Newcomers will have lived in a multitude of nations, even leading up to the country of origin that appears on resettlement documentation. This information can be helpful, in that it allows for additional insights into students’ probable cultural and learning backgrounds. It might also sway us away from topical assumptions and approaches to our craft. Cultural geography 101, via the wide-eyed testimonies of our learners.

The list below indicates possible refugee origination locales. The perimeter countries represent heavily documented home nations. The adjacent regions are plausible induction zones. Often, grouped nations may be interchanged as first, second, or third origination countries. Of course, this resource equates to a rough-sketch approximation guide. The only true authorities on our students’ pre-resettlement paths are our students and families themselves.


Nepal: Bhutan, Tibet

India: Iran, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and China

Kenya: Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Sudan, and Ethiopia

Ghana: Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Liberia, Togo, Benin, Mali, Nigeria, and Senegal

Egypt: Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Syria, Djibouti, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Yemen, Congo, and Lebanon

Libya: Tunisia, Lebanon, Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, Senegal, Egypt, Somalia, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Yemen, Djibouti, and Algeria

Thailand, Malaysia: Myanmar Burma, Karen Burma, Chin Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and China

Bangladesh: Rohingya Burma, Urdu Pakistan, Iran, Philippines, and Vietnam Jordan: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Ethiopia, Tunisia, Armenia, Bosnia, Serbia, and Afghanistan

Turkey: Russia, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan

Brazil: Venezuela, Honduras, Paraguay, Ecuador, Columbia, and Costa Rica

Mexico: Costa Rica, Guatemala, Haiti, Jamaica, Columbia, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Honduras, and Chili.