As national debates on immigration grow more prominent, the University of Wisconsin is hosting a conference to discuss how to help the children of immigrants and refugees cope with the challenges of starting life in a new community.

The free event, which started Wednesday, is featuring talks on topics such how to bridge language barriers, navigate media and manage the placement of immigrant and refugee children in special education.

The three-day event held in Madison is only part one of the international conference. The second part of it will take place in Paris.

One of the event’s organizers, University of Puerto Rico professor Kristine Harrison said the conference is focused on what happens to refugee children who have been forced to move from their home countries either for economic or safety reasons when they get to different schools.

“Often, the teachers are the ones who are like first responders, because the children have been through a lot,” Harrison said. “They may need psychological help. They most likely don’t speak the language, and they need a lot of help. The schools may have programs, they may not, and then the teachers have to deal with that.”

The clash of languages and cultures can also affect children’s sense of identity, Harrison said.

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The conference will bring together K-12 teachers, faculty from across the UW System, a local Menominee Potawatomi educator and researchers from more than a dozen countries.

Asmahan Sandokji, a UW student, said the roundtable discussions with groups including the Muslim Student Association of Madison will also tackle issues like practicing Islamic rituals in schools.

“Muslim women, Muslim men, in general, we feel like we are underrepresented in society,” Sandokji said. “There is so much that people don’t know about us. Roundtables are an amazing opportunity for us to explain misconceptions and answer questions.”

Refugees from Syria recently joined the Madison community, and Sandokji said members of the Muslim community have reached out to help. The families, however, receive only two months of assistance once they come to America, Harrison said.

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Harrison proposed the idea for the conference last May based on her personal experience and research about what children learn about themselves in schools.

As a Muslim woman herself, she has recognized the struggles of a whole generation of students

“The history books, the social studies books, don’t always match exactly who all the kids are,” Harrison said. 

Harrison said “things have gotten worse” recently for some children and equity advocates are hearing dozens of stories a day of children being beaten up and told to “go home.”

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She said one of the main goals of the conference is to build better relationships within communities through the leadership of teachers by providing materials and stories.

The UW conference, titled “Language Education Policy and Identities Inclusion: Cultivating Distinctiveness,” is scheduled to run Wednesday through Friday at the Discovery Building and Gordon Events Center. Thursday includes the launch of a new book titled “Policy for Peace: Language Education Unlimited.” The full list of speakers is available at the Language Education Policy Studies website.