Sudanese refugee youth and educational success: The role of church and youth group in supporting cultural and academic adjustment and schooling achievement

Jane Wilkinson, Ninetta Santoro, Jae Major

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    46 Citations (Scopus)


    There is a burgeoning body of research about refugee youth that adopts a deficit approach by focusing on the problems and barriers youth encounter in adjusting culturally and academically to schools. There is less research that takes an asset approach through an examination of the strengths refugee youth bring to formal schooling and how these assets can be built upon to support academic achievement and cultural adjustment. Furthermore, the majority of existing research focuses on refugee students’ experiences of formal education, and in particular, schooling. In this article, we challenge these deficit notions, turning our gaze to the everyday spaces inhabited by Sudanese refugee youth who have resettled in regional New South Wales, Australia. Our research poses the question: what role do institutions outside school play in supporting Sudanese refugee youth as they move from one culture to another? The question is significant because little research has focused on the role played by institutions outside school, such as church, youth groups and sporting associations in fostering the social and cultural capital required for refugee youth to integrate within the broader community, and to engage successfully in schooling. Data provided by photo-stimulated interviews with Sudanese refugee youth, their families, volunteers and refugee youth service providers, and observations of them in extra-curricular activities, revealed the role of faith-based activities, such as youth groups, in nurturing the young people’s disposition for educational achievement. Drawing on the Bourdieuian concepts of cultural and social capital and habitus, we suggest that religious affiliation enabled the young people to access social capital through “prosocial and proeducational moral directives” (Barrett, 2010, p. 467). Positive role models of other youth, peers and adult churchgoers from a range of social class backgrounds reduced the social isolation of the young people, thus shaping their habitus in ways that promoted educational success (Barrett, 2010). Moreover, religious involvement provided refugee youth with access to socially legitimised forms of cultural capital. These included opportunities to develop and demonstrate leadership skills through “group decision making, leading discussions, mobilizing consensus, and public speaking” (Barrett, 2010, p. 473). These forms of capital shaped the students’ habitus and contributed to school adjustment and achievement. We conclude that future research is needed to examine the role that church and other institutions outside school may play in contributing to cultural and academic adjustment.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)210-219
    Number of pages10
    JournalInternational Journal of Intercultural Relations
    Publication statusPublished - Sept 2017


    • Capital
    • Church
    • Educational success
    • Everyday spaces
    • Habitus
    • Refugee youth

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