Return to school a challenging milestone for Syrian refugees
Saturday, August 27, 2016

For most kids, the start of school evokes some combination of excitement and dread. Anticipation around who the teacher will be, whether friends will be in the same class and how the next 10 months of their lives are going to unfold.

Throw in a tenuous grasp of English, a strange culture in which you are not sure of the ground rules, and an overarching fear of saying or doing the wrong thing — and you’ll have some idea of what it’s like to be refugee students starting their first school year in Canada. 

This will be the reality for about 700 Syrian refugee students in B.C. who are now mentally preparing themselves for the new school year. Many had their schooling interrupted, sometimes for years, because they had to flee their homes. A lucky few attended school in the country where they first sought refuge — typically Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey — but many could not because of rules that prevented Syrian students from attending or their families could not afford the fees.

School interrupted

Heveen Kurdi, 16, will start Grade 11 in the fall. She and her siblings — Shergo, 15, Raezan, 10, Ranim, 8 and Sherwan, 1 — arrived in December, a little earlier than most Syrian refugees, who arrived between January and March. The older children entered the school system in Coquitlam shortly after the holiday break. They were placed in a specialized class that provides cultural orientation and English-language instruction for newly arrived immigrants.

For Heveen and Shergo, it was their first time in school in four years. They were in grades 6 and 5, respectively, when fighting forced them to flee their home in Syria. They fled to Turkey, where they were not allowed to attend school because they were Syrian. Shergo worked in a Turkish sweatshop to help the family put food on the table. Heveen taught Raezan and Ranim the little bit of English she knew.

“I teach … alphabet and colours and a little bit of math,” she explained.

While they were in Turkey, two of their cousins and an aunt drowned while attempting to cross the Aegean Sea. A photograph of their dead cousin, three-year-old Alan Kurdi, made their family famous, but the trauma persisted long after the cameras packed up and left. They have family members still in Syria and living as refugees in Turkey. They will start the new school year still grieving for those who have died and worried for those left behind.

Coping with trauma

This kind of trauma is not unusual among refugee students and it manifests in all kinds of ways, said Niveen Assaf, who is one of five Arabic-speaking settlement workers in the Surrey school district.

“Sometimes they are a little bit aggressive. That’s why when I see any student, he is acting a little bit aggressive, I understand that … last five years at least, he was not settled down in his house with his parents, normal life, no schools, nothing,” she said. “Even some of … their family members were killed or some of them are still there. They want their family to come here and they really suffer.”

Assaf has worked with about 80 students and their families since she started her job with the district in May. Her role is to explain to newly-arrived students what teachers will expect of them and what constitutes acceptable behaviour in a Canadian classroom.

For example, in Syria it is common for students to speak at the same time as teachers, whereas here students are expected to wait for the teacher to finish speaking and then raise their hand to ask a question, Assaf explained. Syrians also tend to speak louder than Canadian students and gesture more, she added.

“We have to teach them how to act, how to deal with people … because we don’t want people in Canada to misunderstand them. Sometimes they think that they are rude or impolite … but they don’t understand. This is the main problem.”

Classroom space scarce

Assaf works at the Surrey district’s Welcome Centre, which is the first point of contact with the school system for all immigrant students. Here, school settlement workers meet new students and their families to conduct needs assessments and teachers evaluate students to determine what grade they should go into and what level of English language learner support they will need. It is also home to the Bridge program, where high school students learn basic English, the dos and don’ts of Canadian classroom etiquette and go on trips around the region before entering the regular school system.

On a recent morning, the Surrey RCMP paid a visit to the classroom, explaining, among other things, when to call 911 and what to expect from emergency responders after a call has been placed. About half the students listened attentively in the classroom and asked questions through a translator, while the other half explored an open police cruiser in the parking lot.  

The Welcome Centre has been busy in recent months. Surrey has had about 300 Syrian students enter its schools this year, which is close to half the total in the province and roughly four times more than any other district in B.C. Since February, there have been about 200 students through the Bridge program, which is the most they’ve ever had, said Caroline Lai, who manages the Welcome Centre for the district. They are planning for an equal number in the fall, when more refugees are expected to arrive.

They are generally enthusiastic, Lai said in an interview at the Welcome Centre, as students laughed and chatted animatedly in Arabic in the classroom next door.

“They’re super happy, super excited. … We can hardly contain them.”

Staff at the Welcome Centre can handle the influx, said Judy Henriques, acting director of instruction. Surrey has long been a top destination for immigrants and especially for refugees, so the system is well established and the staff well trained, she said.

“Where it’s daunting for us is that this site is at capacity.”

The Welcome Centre, which is funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, received additional money earlier this year to expand the Bridge program into the two high schools with the most Syrian students: Guildford Park and Queen Elizabeth, Lai said. This was also more convenient for the students, who no longer had to commute from those neighbourhoods to the Welcome Centre in Newton. But in the schools as well, classroom space is at a premium. At Guildford Park, a computer lab was repurposed, with all the PCs moved to one side of the classroom. 

They are hoping to do the same thing in the fall, and district officials are working to find the necessary classroom space, Henriques said.

“That would be ideal, because it’s their home school,” she said. “Physical space is always an issue in Surrey … if we can’t find space in the schools then we’ll make it work somehow here.”

The B.C. government funds districts on a per-pupil basis. That amount is higher for students who need English language support. 

Seeking a home

The Kurdis hope to return to school in Coquitlam, specifically to Centennial secondary and Parkland elementary. All four siblings said they are looking forward to seeing their friends and teachers.

They speak English well enough to answer all a reporter’s questions over the course of a 20-minute interview without a translator. Shergo says he spoke no English when he arrived in December and learned it all in the Coquitlam school district’s Welcome Class, which is where immigrant students go before entering the regular school system. This is where Syrian refugee students are assessed by one of the district’s two Arabic-speaking school settlement workers, said district spokesman Peter Chevrier.

“A more detailed assessment then takes place to help students integrate into their neighbourhood schools as soon as possible,” he said in an emailed statement.

Coquitlam has 72 Syrian refugee students registered for the fall, which is the second-highest number in the province after Surrey, Chevrier said. They, too, expect more to arrive in the coming months. 

“One of our surprises was how quickly students adjusted to their school settings, despite many of them having interruptions to their schooling and coming from difficult and traumatic situations,” Chevrier said. “They have been very eager to learn, made friends and have a strong desire to feel a sense of belonging.  A continuing challenge is helping secondary students not just to learn English, but to begin to feel connected to Canadian peers and move past the trauma they have experienced.”

But while the Kurdis would like to return to Coquitlam, they may have to start over somewhere else, yet again.

The Kurdi family was privately sponsored by Tima Kurdi, who is the sister of the children’s father, Mohammad. They moved into her Coquitlam home when they arrived, but Mohammad’s family recently moved out by mutual decision. They are temporarily living at an Immigrant Services Society of B.C. facility in downtown Vancouver while they look for a permanent home, but have had difficulty finding a landlord who will rent to a family of seven, Shergo said.

One landlord “said we need four bedrooms. In Canada, four bedrooms is very expensive,” he said. His father had been working in Tima’s hair salon in Port Coquitlam, but commuting there from downtown Vancouver by transit is difficult, especially when he must be available to view potential housing at a moment’s notice.

If the family doesn’t find a home they can afford in the schools’ catchment area, Heveen and Shergo worry they will not be able to attend.

“I am so sad because this year I don’t have a home in Coquitlam,” Shergo said. “Maybe I need to change schools.”

Syrian refugee students by the numbers

1,685 government-assisted Syrian refugees arrived in B.C. between November 2015 and the end of May, according to the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. and the Intercultural Association of Victoria. Refugee arrivals slowed significantly over the summer, but are expected to pick up again in the fall.

Of those, 611 (36 per cent) were between the ages of six and 18. When the five-year-olds and privately-sponsored refugees not included in this figure are accounted for, the number of Syrian refugees starting school in B.C. this fall is likely more than 700.

Here are the B.C. cities with the most Syrian refugee youth between the ages of 6 and 18:

Surrey: 265
Coquitlam: 59
Abbotsford: 51
Delta: 35
Burnaby: 32
Greater Victoria: 31
Vancouver: 28
Langley: 25
Maple Ridge/Mission: 15
Chilliwack: 14

Sources: Immigrant Services Society of B.C. and the Intercultural Association of Victoria. Includes government-assisted refugees who arrived in B.C. between November 2015 and the end of May 2016. Does not include privately-sponsored refugees.

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Source: The Vancouver Sun / Tara Carman