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A haven of learning

Immigrant parents get chance to learn English, adapt to new life

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A first-of-its-kind program at an inner-city school is welcoming the isolated moms, grannies and preschool siblings of its refugee students. For many of the adults in the Newcomer Literacy Initiative, it's their first time in a classroom. For some, it's the first time they've ever held a pencil.

It's close to home, everyone works at their own pace and babies are welcome.

"If a child starts crying, no one gets upset," said teacher Dorota Blumczynska.

The idea is to get the isolated grownups who don't speak English out of their homes and into Victoria-Albert School so they can learn some English and how to adapt to life in Canada.

The hope is they'll get involved in their community and their kids' education, said one of the founders of the Newcomer Literacy Initiative, Allan Wise.

With the province expecting to double the number of immigrants to 20,000 a year by 2017, such programs are vital, especially in the inner city, he said.

People like Halimo from Somalia, who works nights as a cleaner and has three school-aged children, can drop in when she wants or leave early if she has to. The 44-year-old refugee, however, attends the program dutifully four days a week, even on the days when the temperature hovers near -40 C. "It's OK," she smiled.

She's preparing to graduate to the next level of the program, which has expanded to Hugh John Macdonald School nearby.

On this Friday afternoon, there are just six students in the beginner class at Victoria-Albert School. They're learning how to fill out a form with their personal information -- something they're often asked for but struggle with because the English alphabet and numerals are foreign to them.

A petite middle-aged woman from Burma named Tar Shwe struggles to write the number "nine." The ethnic Karen refugee held a pencil for the first time six months ago, said volunteer Jamie Matwyshyn. Patiently, she encourages Tar to try writing a "nine" again and again. "A language barrier is a huge obstacle," Matwyshyn, a university student, is discovering.

A woman from Somalia who is wearing a black head scarf and matching floor-length gown smiles, holds out her hand and says "Hi, friend." Amina painstakingly prints her name and address in English with the help of a translator.

In a corner of the classroom, child minder Denise Runions reads a book to preschooler Dohsoh, an ethnic Karen from Burma.

"Kids are kids," Runions said after the little boy fell asleep. "They love listening to stories," whether they know the language or not. They're learning all the time, she said.

After the students finish their exercise, they play a game of word recognition bingo.

"This is the program that leads people to take part in the community and day-to-day life, starting from their kids' own school," said Wise, who used to run the Immigrant and Refugee Community of Manitoba Inc. (IRCOM).

"When I was running IRCOM, a majority of the kids were attending Victoria-Albert School," Wise said.

"Portfolio nights (parent-teacher-student meetings) were not happening. The parents didn't have a level of language to understand. They were kept in the dark... The kids' reading abilities were dropping. Homework was not being done." At an after-school program for immigrant children at IRCOM House, it became apparent to volunteer teachers the kids weren't getting the help they needed, Wise said.

"Kids in Grade 5 couldn't read at a Grade 5 level. One of the reasons is they were not reading at home," said Wise, who is now the community development co-ordinator for West Alexander Community Education Development Association.

Two years ago, Wise approached the principal of nearby Victoria-Albert School and they got the province to cough up $8,000. They hired former magistrate Elizabeth Treidler to teach.

The program became so popular, it outgrew one classroom and almost had to close.

"We had 20 students, 19 kids, two volunteers, and two child minders -- too many people in one room!"

Then, an anonymous donor gave $5,000 and everything fell into place, said Treidler. A year later, the program has expanded to two schools, two teachers, five part-time child minders with a number of translators.

The schools donate the space and the province provides close to $80,000 a year, said Noelle DePape, executive director of IRCOM. The Winnipeg Foundation provides some funds.

There are two men in the program with 23 students where eight languages other than English are spoken. Most live in IRCOM House, an inner-city apartment block for recent newcomers.

"In IRCOM, there's quite a high percentage of single moms trying to cope with raising all these children," said Treidler. "A lot of kids are slipping through the cracks." They're learning to speak English faster than their moms who stay at home, she said. "The whole relationship is turned upside down," said Treidler. "The kids are in charge and it's easy to pull the wool over the parents eyes," she said.

"For the parents, there's a real feeling of helplessness: You were in control, now your kids are in control. How do you discipline them?" The women in the program find out they're not alone, said Treidler.

The year-old program is starting to bear fruit, said DePape at IRCOM.

A good gauge of the program's success was the last portfolio night at Victoria-Albert, where the attendance used to be nil, said Wise.

"The school hired a few translators for parent council night and 80 people came out. It was amazing!"

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 4, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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