Helping refugee families in B.C. navigate the Canadian school system
Monday, January 9, 2017

On paper, Abeer Al-kozbary’s job title is multicultural worker – a staffer with the Surrey school district who helps immigrant and refugee children integrate into the Canadian school system.

In practice, she is much more.

During the day, the Syrian-born Ms. Al-kozbary is bouncing between elementary and high schools, facilitating communication between Arabic-speaking families and school staff, bridging cultural divides and offering new refugee families a sense of familiarity in a new country a world away from their own.

At night, students and their parents often reach her by text on her personal mobile. On a recent night, a parent messaged her with a photo of a field-trip permission form: “Ms. Abeer, what does this say?”

Unofficially, she is an advocate, a counsellor, a translator, a friend.

Robin Smalley, principal at Guildford Park Secondary, calls Ms. Al-kozbary an invaluable asset to the school district.

“[Refugee families] are greeted by her infectious smile and know from the moment they meet her that they are in good hands,” he said, “and their anxiety of coming to a new country and new education system is diminished.”

The Globe and Mail recently sat down with Ms. Al-kozbary at the school.

What happens during the initial meeting with a new refugee family?

First they come [to the school] and I register them, and then we transfer their papers to the [Immigrant Services Society of B.C. Welcome Centre], which makes an appointment with them for a skills assessment.

After the assessment, the welcome centre tells the school what level they are at. If the kids need extra assistance, then they can stay at the welcome centre a little longer.

When they’re transferred to the school here, my job is to welcome them, take them on a tour, introduce them to counsellors, show them their schedules, teach them how to use the lockers, where to change for gym class.

Can you speak a little about the cultural divide, and what the transition is like for these families?

It’s hard. We try to make it easier for them, especially with Syrian refugees, because most are from villages and they have been living in refugee camps for two years, three years. It’s not easy for the kids to adjust, because some of them have never been in school. There’s a bit of cultural shock for them.

A school schedule, for example, is really tricky. Fridays, we have a rotation [block], which is confusing, so I write in Arabic and explain what the block order is.

What are some of the challenges you encounter on the job?

Dealing with traumatized kids is a challenge. Having a meeting with them, if it’s really sensitive, I can’t keep my tears in. It’s not easy.

It’s a challenge to tell them, “It’s okay. One day you will go back and visit your grandma and grandpa [in Syria].”

It’s sad. I have lots of families from Aleppo and I’m always with them, on the phone, checking on their families.

Is there a moment, or an interaction, that has really stuck out to you?

There was one family, the dad drove them to Jordan. Mom was pregnant. He went back [to Syria] to get his mom and dad and his car was bombed. It affected the family, me, the school. The school doesn’t know these things if I don’t tell them, because of the language barrier.

We have orientations for new [refugee and immigrant] students all the time to discuss expectations, the rules, the system. I wish we could have orientations for the other kids to accept these people. These kids went through such a difficult time.

Are there examples of instances in which refugees were not accepted?

Yes, there have been a few instances of kids pushing or hitting other kids. I’ll get a phone call: “Abeer, can you please call his parents because he pushed another kid, and I want to know why he did it.” So then I sit with the kid and ask what’s going on. He said, “I know what ‘go’ means, and I know ‘Syria.’ He told me to go back to Syria. He was saying bad words to me.” It’s sad. If I hadn’t sat with the kid and asked him what happened, the school would never know.

What do you need?

If we had more resources, we would be able to better support these kids. I’m so thankful for the welcome centre. They provide us with some support, like a reading club, a homework club. They take the kids out for city tours, to listen to music.

The Bridge Program [a specialized supportive program for refugee students] is awesome. I’m really glad that we have that; it would be great to have more resources like that.

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Source: Andrea Woo / The Globe and Mail

Photo: Abeer Al-Kozbary, right, a multicultural worker for the Surrey school district, receives a hug from Grade 12 student Zainab Salam, 17, who moved to Canada from Iraq in 2014 with her mom and two brothers, at Guildford Park Secondary School in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday December 15, 2016.