Raising the educational attainment of young Africans from refugee backgrounds

Dr Tebeje Molla

Dr Tebeje Molla is determined to help young African refugees find their path in Australian life through success in education.

In 2019, Dr Molla was awarded a prestigious Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA) aimed at uncovering the barriers that young African refugees face in higher education and finding ways to improve their chances of participation.

During the past four decades, Australia has resettled thousands of African refugees. Many are young people who have fled their homes to escape violence and spent years in refugee camps where they have had limited access to education. When they arrive in Australia, they are in such a disadvantaged social position that it is very difficult for them to make the most of any educational opportunities. Lack of participation in the education system leads to limited job opportunities, low income, and social disengagement.

“The proportion of African refugees who transition to higher education within five years of their arrival in Australia is around 10 per cent. A number that has not changed in the past 25 years,” Dr Molla said.

Success in higher education has been equally a challenge for the group

“In the past two decades, only one in five of those who begin a tertiary qualification manage to graduate. I wanted to understand if the low success rate in university was related to academic preparation at secondary school.”

“My DECRA project explores the aspirations, opportunities, and experiences of young African refugees within the secondary and tertiary school systems.”

Although the project will not be completed until January 2022, Dr Molla’s preliminary findings have been published in scholarly journals and media outlets such as The Conversation.

The findings have made it possible for him to produce a teacher’s guide that will give secondary school teachers the tools they need to help these young people succeed. The guide outlines five principles and 20 specific strategies of inclusive teaching practices that can enhance academic engagement and learning outcomes among African students from refugee backgrounds.

“These are people who have spent 8 to 10 years in a refugee camp with little or no education. When they come to Australia they are put into a class according to their age rather than their educational level,” Dr Molla noted.

The problems are compounded by the negative perception of these young people in the media which has led to racism towards them within the community and at school.

“I interviewed 44 young African Australians and many of them told me that because the public see them as violent, they are treated differently even at school and this has a negative impact on their education.”

“When you are routinely judged by the actions of others, the damage is personal and lasting,” Dr Molla said.

School personnel who were interviewed mentioned that African students were aggressive and perceived as dangerous. There did not seem to be any understanding of the reasons for that aggression and that it may be an expression of frustration or past trauma.

“That brought up the question about how well-prepared teachers are to deal with diversity and racial prejudice. My aim in writing the guide for educators is to make them aware of the less visible issues that may be causing certain behaviours and give them the skills to deal with these appropriately,” Dr Molla stated.

Young African refugees hold high educational and career aspirations. With the right support in high school and university these young people can thrive.

“Despite their hardships many are successful. They have overcome many obstacles to complete tertiary qualifications. They have resilience, courage and passion and a desire to give back to the country that has become their home.”