I volunteer at an English class held at our local settlement agency. In our community, as in many others, this past year has seen the arrival of a number of refugees from Syria. Many of them have no English at all, and some are not literate in their first language.
I can hardly grasp the enormity of the challenge facing them, as they start from scratch in a world where just about everything is different: the language, the alphabet system, the food, the social customs. In an interesting modern twist, the common denominator is the cell phone, brokered by language apps like Google Translate.
The chance to give their kids a good education is of huge importance to many families who come here. But that doesn’t make it any easier to leave their children in the hands of strangers with whom they can barely communicate, in a school system they don’t understand. As educators, we need to be sensitive not only to the needs of the newcomer children coming into our schools, but to their families as well. For this issue on welcoming newcomer students, I spoke with a family who arrived three years ago from Peru. Esther, the mom, shared with me some of the anxieties she experienced in their first months, and how small gestures of welcome “gave us hope that we can be part of this community.” (p. 16).
An understanding of best practices for supporting newcomer students is emerging, and two of our authors are on the leading edge of this endeavour, especially with regard to students who arrive as refugees. Caroline Lai worked with her staff at the Surrey Schools English Language Learner Welcome Centre to paint a compelling picture of one student whose past experience includes having to flee two different homes and becoming a soldier when he was just 15. The authors explain the importance of providing a “soft landing into Canada” with their program, which gives students from a refugee background a chance to feel safe and begin to re-orient (p. 10). Jan Stewart discusses how we can create trauma-sensitive schools, and takes us inside an extraordinary Winnipeg school where the principal has set out to create a compassionate community where all students “can be safe, feel cared for, and be open to learning.” (p. 20).
Finally, I’d like to thank the Surrey Schools English Language Learner Welcome Centre for guiding us in the creation of the “10 Best Practices” list you will find on p. 13. It is available as a free printable poster on our website: cea-ace.ca/newcomers. A French version is also available: cea-ace.ca/immigrants. Please share it with your colleagues!
Photo: Dave Donald
First published in Education Canada, March 2017
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