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Viewpoints: Syrian refugees a challenge worth taking on

March 22, 2016 Vanessa Yamazaki, Red Deer Public Schools

As part of Canada’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis, Red Deer Public Schools has welcomed 64 students from kindergarten to Grade 12 into our classrooms since January. As the district’s intake co-ordinator for English as a Second Language, I have met these children and their families, and my most powerful impression is that they are incredibly resilient, having experienced far more than they ought to have in their short lives.

Before these newcomers arrived, it was really important that we provided our existing students and staff with information sessions that built awareness and understanding about where these new students were coming from, why they were here, what their journey had been like and how we could best support them. As these children have arrived, it’s been wonderful seeing how our teachers, students and school communities have welcomed them.

Our overall community has played a significant role in welcoming Syrian families and supporting our schools. Initial intake has been managed through Catholic Social Services while ongoing supports are handled by the Central Alberta Refugee Effort Society (CARE).

Most of these new students come to school excited and wanting to learn, but their learning needs are incredibly diverse. We have students who have never attended school at all — they are not even literate in Arabic and have never used a pencil. Sitting in a desk for five minutes is a real challenge. Most have no idea what a locker is.

Others have some education, which has made it easier for them to excel at school and English. We know some bring the scars of growing up in war-torn nations and refugee camps — we need to consider their mental health needs as well. A few have arrived with specialized and complex learning needs that will need to be supported.

Language is one of the most significant challenges in connecting with families and addressing issues that arise. A few of our staff speak Arabic. Some colleagues and I are taking Arabic lessons. Meanwhile, CARE provides translation services and other invaluable supports. Ideally, we would like to attract Arabic staff to provide academic, emotional and cultural supports, but this is a real challenge.

Understanding the routines, culture and structure of a Canadian school is a challenge for new students and their parents. Add to that activities like fire or lockdown drills, which require considerable preparation and co-ordination beforehand to create understanding for these children, who have entirely different life experiences.

While most of the Syrian students spend part of their days congregated in English as a Second Language programs at three designated schools, others are attending neighbourhood schools in a more inclusive setting. There is no doubt that the arrival of these students has added to the diversity and complexity of classrooms. While we draw on our past experiences of welcoming other refugees and immigrant students, there is a real need to build capacity among our school staff to meet the needs of these unique learners.

Our district has responded by hiring two full-time teachers and an educational assistant to work with these new students.

There’s no doubt that the introduction of these new students has been a struggle for many classroom teachers, particularly when students are integrated in regular classrooms and have such diverse learning needs. Collaboration, creativity and communication among teachers have been essential. Our teachers have been welcoming and have worked very hard to respond to students’ needs. I am proud of what they have achieved.

We are in the early stages of this transition and know that students will be going through different stages, academically, emotionally and culturally. As the excitement and newness of the situation wears off, we know there will be struggles and adjustments that require supports. We already have some students who aren’t comfortable and are not attending school. We anticipate the need for mental health supports, but this will be a challenge, particularly with language barriers.

As a public school district, we welcome all students. This has also brought challenges since there has been no additional funding from either the provincial or federal governments. Even with these constraints, our district is doing whatever it takes to meet students’ needs. We are doing the best we can with what we have.

While it’s easy to see this group of students as unique, it’s also refreshing to see that there are more similarities than differences. Kids just want to be kids. They want to connect with others, fit in and be noticed. They love to laugh, they want to learn and, like everyone else, they have good days and bad days.

A lot has happened in the last two-and-a-half months. When the government announced its ambitious plans to provide refuge to Syrian families, we had no idea what it would mean for our students, staff and schools. We’ve tried to be as responsive as possible. There have been challenges for sure, but we are seeing success. We are pleased to support Canada’s role in welcoming these refugees, who deserve to live in peace and achieve their very best.

Vanessa Yamazaki is the ESL intake co-ordinator for Red Deer Public Schools.

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