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Reflections on Refugees During the COVID-19 Pandemic



As the world faces a growing refugee crisis, adult learning professionals must consider the implications of their work within the context of an increasingly complex and uncertain world.
Abstract: As the world faces a growing refugee
crisis, adult learning professionals must consider the
implications of their work within the context of an
increasingly complex and uncertain world.
Keywords: adult education, White supremacy,
refugees, imagery and metaphor, pandemic
One of the most striking
elements of the pandemic
has been the experiences
that are analogous to those of
refugees. I am exhausted by
uncertainty and maddened by
isolation, both of which conflicts
with my personal mythology of
independence. I am gripped by
anxiety in public places that, as a
White person, reminds me of
conversations with friends about
their hypervigilance in enduring
systemic racism. I am a small step closer to being able
to imagine living with the constant fear that a stranger
could casually end my life.
The current state of the world and our own
neighborhoods invite us to consider and imagine the
experiences of refugees as well as other displaced,
marginalized, and vulnerable people. Perhaps, more
accurately, it points to our glaring inability to imagine
their experiences and the limitations of our own values.
It would not be difficult to argue that the extent of the
impact of the pandemic is due in no small part to a
failure of our imaginations.
In what would end up being our last class together,
I tried to assuage my adult English as a Second
Language (ESL) students’ fears about the spread of
COVID-19. I was sure, I told them,
that we would all be fine—that
the American health care system is
top-notch and ready for any
challenge. Looking back, I believe
I was blithely patronizing and
couldn’t have been more exactly
wrong. I didn’t have the
imagination to envision that, a
month later, my partner would
head to work wearing a face
shield made in my high school
physics teacher’s garage and a
mask made in my sister-in-law’s
upcycling handbag workshop because neither would
be otherwise available.
We are in the grip of a climate crisis that lives in the
paradoxes of the complex and unimaginable. As
scientists and activists push us toward understanding
the impact of climate change, those impacts become
easier to imagine and, ironically, we are comforted by
948962ALXXXX10.1177/1045159520948962Adult LearningAdult Learning
Reections on Refugees During the COVID-19
Brennan Gage, MEd1
DOI: From 1Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, NY. Address correspondence to: Brennan Gage,
Teachers College, Columbia University, 525 W 120th St., NY 10027-6605, USA; email:
Article reuse guidelines:
Copyright © 2020 The Author(s)
T  
  
 , 
 
  
 ,   
 
  .”
imagining that they are, therefore, easy to solve. The
existential threat of climate change, however, is change
that occurs so quickly and unpredictably that it
precludes any response. We can be sure, however, that
many more people will be displaced. The spread of
COVID-19 is an example of this confounding
complexity—even as the pandemic touches every
corner of the globe, marshaling the world’s resources
toward a coherent response appears next to
As we sink deeper into an ocean of complexity and
uncertainty, we could imagine the myriad of
catastrophes that may befall us so that we might better
prepare. But perhaps more importantly, we could
exercise our moral imaginations and consider how we
might respond as greater and more frequent
catastrophes visit our communities. When our
uncertainty is greatest, we crave secure belonging the
most. We are hewn together not so much by the
problems we face but by the moral logic we marshal in
response. How we decide the right and just course of
action and how we tell the story of facing these
challenges is the glue that binds us together.
Several years ago, leading a workshop for a group of
teachers in India about project-based learning, I
showed a video made by students in California about
their efforts to combat gun violence in their
community. The video was provocative and powerful,
and illustrated all the components of a successful,
student-driven project. But the group of 70 teachers
stared blankly at me until one politely asked, “Do you
have anything more relevant to our experience? You
see, we don’t have gun violence in India . . . ” I had
not considered that my American identity was
something I would be responsible for and something
that needed to be negotiated and explained. It never
occurred to me that I might seem wholly disingenuous,
or complicit, or out of touch with the real and pressing
social issues of their lives.
This experience helped me think about the way we
delineate our identities through a shared imagination of
our problems. Just as “we are what we eat,” as a
community we are what we gossip about, wring our
hands over, and, essentially, moralize together. We gain
comfort from a shared sense of right and wrong, and
the soothing subtext of being good people, together.
Determining the deeper moral logic of one’s story is,
perhaps, even more important than authoring it. When
I taught at an international high school in Houston, a
student told me the story of leaving everyone he knew
in a refugee camp and traveling to America where he
started a successful business. Every month, he met with
his friends and they all pooled their money so they
could pay teachers and buy supplies for the children in
the camps in Uganda. I was so impressed with his story
and told him that I wanted to help share it with others
so he could raise more money. He smiled patiently and
politely declined. Another teacher had also been
impressed with his story and helped him give talks to
different groups about his work, but he found that it
wasn’t worth the difficulty and his time was better
spent running his business. My own moralizing of his
story was not helpful to him and would have become a
As educators, we carry the risk of reactivating
trauma and we must contend with never being able to
do enough. The work will always be unfinished, but
we cannot pretend that the work was not always really
ours. We might struggle to glimpse what is in the heart
of a displaced person arriving in our classrooms, but
they have already seen clearly into ours. They carry the
weight of our collective failure—both directly by
contending for survival within all our broken systems
and more subtly by enduring our racism and
xenophobia, being forced to enact our projections of
otherness and our unconscious fears. Refugees in our
communities arrive unaware of the hidden codes of
systemic racism, codes that White people like me are
uncomfortable addressing and mostly wish would
remain hidden. As leaders and educators, we must
contend with the real danger and possibility that our
work could do little more than usher refugees neatly
and quietly into crushing systemic racism.
Growing up and living with White people for most
of my life, the most wholehearted love and
appreciation of the American Dream I have ever
encountered has been among refugees and immigrants.
They believe, more than anyone, in the mythology of
American salvation. What would it mean if the people
who were most worthy of the task of safeguarding our
national ideals were the same people who many of us
shun and who risk death to arrive here? What if we
were not their saviors, but they ours? What if they
possess gifts of strength and resilience that we would
struggle to imagine? What if instead of talking about
how or whether refugees might be a burden, we talked
about how much help we need? What if their grace
and wisdom saved us?
This work has the potential to transform us, to
broaden our understanding of our own lives, to give
our experience greater depth and meaning. It is
possible that the social and political beliefs we hold to
most dearly, the beliefs we cherish most viscerally, are
not wrong or incorrect, but crude and reductive, that
they create a prison that places limitations on our
experience and identity. In the face of potential global
catastrophe, or perhaps our unifying, collective
salvation, the art of understanding ourselves, the
breadth and richness of each moment, is the only thing
we truly control.
We can think about how to support refugees as they
settle in our communities, and we should. But the
group of people who will struggle most to adapt are
people like me—White and privileged. I have worked
in many failing schools and educational institutions and
one thing that almost never gets addressed is how their
failures are due in large part to the inability of their
privileged, White staff to accommodate changes in their
student demographics. There is a crucial difference to
note here, in that working to serve the needs of
non-White families is entirely different from helping
White teachers think about themselves and their
relationship to race and culture.
If our current task is to fashion some guiding moral
understanding together then the only real resource we
have is in our beating hearts. The images and
metaphors we carry with us and the distinct, perhaps
transcendent, moments that punctuate our lives with
pain and wonder are the tools we will use to build it.
We can understand each other more deeply by
sharing them and they can energize and guide our
work. These moments in our classrooms and the
moments our students share with us will teach us
what we can’t now imagine. They will become who
we are.
Conict of Interest
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest
with respect to the authorship and/or publication of
this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the
research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Brennan Gage
Author Biography
Brennan Gage, MA, MEd, is an EdD student at the
Teachers College at Columbia University. Their research
interests include complexity, adult development, and
intercultural competence, drawing from professional
experience as a teacher, coach, and facilitator.
... is not only a disease, but also an event that changed the traditional social order [1], affected work, family and school life, and challenged the economy and the health care system [2]. During the coronavirus pandemic, the measures taken to stop the spread of the coronavirus, such as social distancing and isolation, closure of shops, businesses, schools, cities, etc., the travel restrictions and insecurity, lead to increased anxiety [3][4][5][6][7][8]. Over time, the spread of coronavirus increases the anxiety experienced [2,7,[9][10][11], as people are concerned about their safety [12]. ...
Full-text available
The coronavirus pandemic affects the lifestyle, mental and physical health of people, especially those at direct risk of becoming infected with SARS-CoV-2. In the period from November 2020 to February 2021, data were collected from 296 healthcare workers through the GAD-7 generalized anxiety questionnaire, as well as through self-assessment of their physical and mental health status, and the degree of perceiving the coronavirus as a threat. The results show that about one-third of the participating healthcare workers experienced mild generalized anxiety, and about one-fifth of them, moderate or severe symptoms of anxiety. Health professionals with the highest generalized anxiety were younger, with deteriorated physical and mental health (not only subjectively estimated by the participants but also objectively diagnosed health workers with coronavirus), less religious, having an intimate partner. More perceived threat of coronavirus was associated with increased generalized anxiety in healthcare professionals. Healthcare workers with a higher level of generalized anxiety were more likely to have difficulties doing their jobs, taking care of things at home, or getting along with other people. The anxiety experienced is of immense importance for the functioning of the individual. It is recommendable for healthcare specialists to feel that they receive social support to reduce their anxiety levels and to better balance their work and personal life, having more free time to take care of themselves and their close relationships.
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