Mervi Kaukko reading a book in a library
Fulbright Finland News Magazine

Learning about Refugee Education and Welcoming Communities

9 June 2023 • Text: Mervi Kaukko

Refugee education is a small but growing research field in Finland. Finnish schools have a strong and well-meaning inclusive ethos, and some argue that students should not be singled out because of their background, for example, because they are refugees. Refugee issues are rather new to many Finnish schools, but the situation is changing. The prolonged conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran continue to force people to migrate, and some flee to Finland. Moreover, the war in Ukraine brought almost 50 000 new forced migrants to Finland just last year. So, we need to know more about the lives of refugees, education being a crucial part of this.

My Fulbright year at Harvard University gave me an opportunity to immerse myself in this topic. I was invited to join my host Professor Sarah Dryden-Peterson’s research group REACH (Research, Education, and Action for Refugees Around the World) in which all researchers focus on refugee education. Via Sarah and others in this group, I got to visit schools, co-analyze existing data, co-teach, and join writing projects with my new American colleagues.

Fulbright’s Outreach program gave me an opportunity to see a completely different part of the country as Virginia Tech University and the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership invited me for a week-long visit to meet students, researchers, and practitioners in Virginia. My host Dr. Iuliia Hoban ensured the trip was engaging and fruitful, and that I had time to also explore the Appalachian Mountains.

Fulbright with a Family

My time in the U.S. has not been only about research. My four children (aged 10, 12, 14, and 16) and husband came with me, which means we also got to experience American family life. 

We soon learned that organizing housing, insurance, children’s schools, hobbies, and other practicalities is almost a full-time job. Thankfully, my husband could take time off from work. 

Fulbright gave us valuable advice before we left, but many things had to be learned by doing. Did you know that a child’s sudden illness might require a trip to a doctor that accepts your particular insurance, and it may not be the nearest hospital? Whenever our child is sick, we must either take them for a one-hour bus trip to get a doctor’s certificate or get an unexcused absence from school because parents’ word is not enough, which surprised us as Finnish teachers. But overall, things have gone well, and our children have enjoyed their time in public schools. 

Learning a Little Bit of Everything

Former Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell said that “A well-educated man (sic) must know a little bit of everything and one thing well.” I agree, and being at Harvard, I have decided to follow this advice. I am just returning from a public lecture about the ecological problems of the Mexican beer industry. I have heard Martin Luther King III’s speech about racism and human rights in the contemporary USA, and the President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola on the role of the EU and the USA in bringing peace to the world.

My advice for future Fulbrighters is not to limit yourself only to what you planned to achieve during your fellowship. Have an open mind and learn about things that have nothing to do with your research or study! This is in line with Fulbright’s aim of promoting a wider exchange of knowledge and will make your time in the U.S. memorable.

Read the Fulbright Finland News 1/2023!

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