Refugees, Higher Education, and Informational Barriers.

Author:Bajwa, Jaswant Kaur


The purpose of the qualitative study was to explore the experiences, needs, barriers, and expectations of survivors of torture and/or war, interested in entering post-secondary education in Canada. We conducted 38 interviews with participants from the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture (CCVT), 10 interviews with CCVT staff, and 1 focus group with 3 participants, which followed a semi-structured interview guide, and were analyzed using a constant comparative method. Survivors of torture and/or war report experiencing informational barriers to navigating educational pathways, accessing professional supports, evaluating credentials, financing education, navigating immigration systems, using online resources, delaying their educational progress, and contributing to mental health distress.


Lbbjectif de cette etude qualitative etait detudier les experiences, les besoins, les obstacles et les atientes de survivants a la torture et/ou a la guerre souhaitant faire des etudes postsecondaires au Canada. Nous avons realise 38 entretiens avec des participants provenant du Centre Canadien pour Victimes de la Torture (CCVT) etio entretiens avec des membres du personnel de ce centre; nous avons egalement travaille avec un groupe cible de trois participants qui ont suivi les consignes d'un guide d'entretien semi-structure et ont ete evalues a l'aide d'une methode comparative constante. Les survivants a la torture et/ou a la guerre ont fait etat d'obstacles a type de manque d'information sur l'orientation dans les filieres d'etudes, lacces a des soutiens professionnels, l'evaluation des diplomes, le financement des etudes, l'orientation dans les systemes d'immigration et I'utilisation des ressources en ligne, l'ensemble de ces insuffisances retardant leur progression sur le plan des etudes et contribuant a des difficultes de sante mentale.


Refugees experience lower rates of access to post-secondary education in Canada, in comparison to other newcomers. (1) Research demonstrates that refugee youth struggle during secondary school, (2) while older refugees are more likely to drop out of secondary and post-secondary education than Canadian-born students, or students who immigrate to Canada as children. (3) This lack of access to higher education contributes to limited social and economic mobility, or downward occupational mobility, leaving many refugees experiencing unemployment, underemployment, and lower incomes, in comparison to other newcomers. (4) This is problematic, as the experience of living in poverty can negatively contribute to refugees' mental health outcomes and lead to social exclusion, further limiting successful settlement in their host country. (5)

Refugees are an integral part of the social fabric of Canadian life, and investing in efforts to increase their educational attainment benefits the wider Canadian society, as educated populations are better able to contribute to the social and economic growth of a country. (6) Attaining higher education plays a pivotal role in the integration and inclusion of refugees into Canadian society, as it can have "wide ramifications for individual refugees, the refugee community, and the general common good," (7) and can result in expanded concrete skills, increased empowerment, increased confidence, and community building. (8)

Refugees and Barriers to Post-secondary Education

Although refugees may have high educational aspirations, many experience barriers in accessing post-secondary education. (9) Although immigrants also experience settlement barriers, refugees' complex pre-migration, migration, and post-migration experiences present unique challenges. While immigrants decide to migrate for economic or familial reasons, refugees are forced to flee their countries of origin out of humanitarian concerns, leaving behind their homes, possessions, family, and friends. (10) Immigrants are generally able to prepare for their migration, research educational or employment trajectories, and have financial and familial resources to rely on. (11) Alternatively, refugees are generally not able to make preparations, often have little to no familial or social support, and may not receive adequate resettlement information about Canadian society after arrival. (12) This lack of preparation and support can make refugees vulnerable to informational barriers. Indeed, refugees describe having limited access to accurate and reliable information and guidance on navigating the educational system. (13) Refugees also report receiving unclear and conflicting information, which reduces their access and results in disappointment and anger. (14) In addition, as the result of Canada's policies and requirements for economic immigrants, many arrive with English/French fluency and significant educational attainment. (15) Alternatively, refugees may experience a lack of English/French fluency and difficulty navigating the Internet, making it challenging to access information required for educational and career decisions. (16) Lack of English fluency also influences success, as research based in Alberta demonstrates that despite English language learners' motivations, they are less prepared for the literacy demands of first-year university, graduate from university with lower GPAs, and take more semesters to complete their studies than native English speakers. (17) Finally, although immigrants and refugees may both experience difficulties accrediting their previous education experiences, refugees express struggles in accessing educational and identification documents from their countries of origin, which are required for post-secondary education applications. (18)

The mental health of refugees also affects access to information. Unlike most newcomers, refugees' pre-migration and migration experiences may have included detention, torture, war, the disappearance and murder of family and friends, living in refugee camps, exploitation, and a lack of food, medicine, or housing. (19) Refugees may also experience post-migration traumas in Canada, which immigrants are less likely to face, such as immigration detention, a lack of family reunification, and uncertainty about their immigration status. (20) Given these stressors, refugees may experience vulnerable mental health and cognitive concerns that affect their learning, including insomnia, flashbacks, and problems with memory, concentration, and processing information. (21) Refugees who are survivors of torture may experience mental health concerns, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression. (22) In addition, the experience of torture can degrade survivors' self-esteem and sense of agency and control, which could affect the ability to overcome educational barriers. (23)

Study Objective

Scant research has examined the experiences of survivors of torture and/or war in accessing post-secondary education. This article stems from a larger community-based participatory research project conducted through a unique partnership between George Brown College (GBC), a socially inclusive post-secondary institution, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), a world-leading research organization, and the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture (CCVT), a community organization working to enhance the settlement and integration of survivors in Toronto, Canada. The project's objective was to identify how post-secondary institutions can support community groups in advancing the educational goals and social inclusion of survivors of torture and/or war. To meet this aim, this project consisted of three phases: (1) exploration of the experiences, needs, barriers, and expectations of survivors of torture and/or war, (a) development of innovative programming intended to address the higher education needs and goals of survivors, and (3) pilot implementation of an educational program, offered to survivors through GBC, designed to facilitate refugees' entry into the Canadian post-secondary education environment. More specifically, this article seeks to examine the initial results from the first phase of the project conducted in fall 2015, concerning the ways in which informational barriers affect refugees' access to Canadian post-secondary education.


Study Design and Sample

This study was a community-based participatory action research partnership between GBC, CAMH, and CCVT and consisted of three distinct phases spread over two years. Community-based participatory research (CBPR) was the chosen method, as it is a framework that focuses on supporting community partners in conducting research that is meaningful to them, so that the research is driven by and mobilized back into the community. (24) Although the project consists of three phases, this article will focus on the first phase: a qualitative exploration of the experiences, needs, barriers, and expectations of CCVT clients, who are survivors of torture and/or war, regarding pursuing post-secondary education in Canada.

All study processes and materials received institutional research ethics approval. Past and current CCVT clients were recruited for participation in the study, through flyers in CCVT's offices and shared spaces, and via CCVT staff during in-person visits, support groups, word-of-mouth, and e-mail distribution, CCVT staff were also invited to participate in the study. The majority of the recruitment was conducted within CCVT, because the centre is the only agency in Toronto that specializes in providing trauma-informed mental health and settlement support to survivors of torture and/or war. However, flyers were shared with other refugee-serving agencies via e-mail and word-of-mouth, and some participants, who were also survivors, were recruited in this manner.

Participants had the option of participating in a one-on-one semi-structured interview, or a focus group, in English or French. All interviews were conducted in English, except for...

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