Refugee Women in Higher Education

Currently, over 20 million refugees are living in a country outside their own (UNHCR, 2020), with around 1% enrolling in higher education compared to the global average of 36% (UNHCR, 2016). Recognizing that many of these people often must continue life without knowing when they can return home, we wanted to discuss how education is disrupted by displacement, what barriers face refugees in higher education, and how we can be more inclusive to the needs/experiences of people who are refugees While little research has examined the intersectional experiences of displaced women (Unangst & Crea, 2020; Yacob-Halisco, 2016), it is important to remember displacement and education are made more complicated by the presence of gender bias around women’s capability to succeed.

Reflect: How Does Displacement Affect the Transition to Higher Education?

It can be hard to imagine being forced to flee to a completely different country due to unrest or conflict. In addition to other concerns about safety, living conditions, and resettlement, the process of becoming forcibly displaced causes untold disruption to educational pathways. While considered a “durable” solution, permanent resettlement is not as easily achieved because asylum can be a drawn-out administrative process that requires extended energy/resources and often separates families (Robertson et al., 2016). This process can have significant effects on mental health, especially when transition does not occur smoothly (Lincoln et al., 2016). Women who enter the resettlement process face additional levels of stress as the normal challenges faced are distilled into complex, gendered experiences of violence, health disparity, and discrimination (Mangrio et al., 2019). What long-lasting effects might this struggle to transition have on someone’s ability to pursue higher education? In what ways can we honor the strength of displaced people who are trying to enter higher education?

Learn: Entering Higher Education as a Refugee

Structural barriers such as an inability to access academic transcripts/identity documents, lacking funds, and insufficient understanding of the application processes prevent refugees from entering higher education. For those who successfully enroll, informational barriers can prevent access to vital support resources (Bajwa et al., 2017) and refugee-specific programs may not address non-academic issues (Streitwieser et al., 2020) such as food insecurity (Stroud, 2019). People who have been forcibly displaced also experience cultural transitions that are troubled by bias and exclusion. Racist assumptions about developing countries often lead faculty and staff to doubt refugee students’ ability to succeed (Perry & Mallozzi, 2011). These same attitudes influence how these students navigate their new bicultural identity. As they make sense of how their identities translate to a new context – such as differences in gender roles or what it means to be an “international” student – exclusionary comments about one’s country of origin can negatively affect sense of belonging (Felix, 2020). Women refugees experience these biases in addition to biases against women’s academic capabilities and high academic expectations (Ghadban, 2018); Mabokela & Mlambo, 2015); these biases also layer over the stress and guilt that can come with trying to juggle education with being a primary caregiver (Fritsch, 2015; Obradović-Ratković et al., 2020).


  • Challenge bias around accents/language: Depending on the recency of resettlement and their previous education, those who are refugees may have a varied grasp of English and/or have an accent (Felix, 2020). Dominant xenophobic/racist attitudes about language proficiency and academic ability often punish those who did not grow up learning English as their first language (Agarwal, 2018; Li, n.d.); such social punishment can lead people to disengage from participating vocally amongst others. Practice patience with those who did not learn English as their first language and make sure to emphasize that their contribution in meeting, classroom, and public spaces is valued. Additionally, if you hear someone make a comment about someone’s ability to speak English, call them in to talk about how they’re erasing the intelligence required to speak multiple languages and reinforcing linguistic racism (Ro, 2021).
  • Encourage an international perspective: People with refugee backgrounds possess an immense amount of resilience as a result of their experiences (Vuni & Costa, 2022). When we honor those experiences by listening empathetically and ensuring that their stories are heard, we can start making progress. Create a space where the voices of refugees, especially refugee women, are leading the conversation about what displacement is like and how it affects their higher education career. If your office/department, classroom, or friend group doesn’t have anyone with those experiences, seek out and share media made by displaced people that can speak to those experiences. Doing so can prevent an overly negative, dehumanizing narrative that paints displaced people as in need of saving and, instead, centers refugee voices in targeted programs.
  • Support collaboration: Spaces where people with refugee backgrounds can collaborate on shared projects may significantly impact their success in higher education – especially for women with refugee backgrounds, influencing persistence into graduate education and academia (Obradović-Ratković et al., 2020). These collaborations can also extend into other valuable areas, such as engaging in critical thinking about cultural differences, deeper satisfaction in one’s work, and soft skill development. By developing professional and personal relationships, we can help refugee students, faculty, and staff feel a holistic sense of belonging in our campus community that positively contributes to their persistence!