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The start of the school year can be even more challenging for immigrant families

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The back-to-school hustle in the Mulimbwa household may appear to be the same as it is in any other Winnipeg home, although perhaps just a bit more intense.

After all, seven of Bahati Mulimbwa's children will be heading off to school next week, plus one grandson in preschool.

However, a framed Free Press front page in the family's living room hints the experience might be quite different for the family. The page, from last December, shows members of the family crying and hugging each other as they arrive at Richardson International Airport. For 11 years before that, the family had lived in Uganda as refugees, escaping the violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The first day of school can be stressful for any child. Finding classes, meeting new teachers, sometimes starting in a new school -- all those things can stress children out. But when a child has grown up in another country, with a different culture and schooling system, and often a different language, the challenges are piled on.

At the Seven Oaks School Division's Adult Learning Centre, Othello Wesee is also preparing for the first day of school. He works with new families to Canada, helping them adjust to the education system here. He said the first day is often more stressful on the parents than the children.

"They're so anxious to know everything... they don't know what to expect," he said.

Wesee said the first day and week are the most crucial times for the students. He's often seen students give up after the first day, pretend to be sick the next and fall behind for the rest of the semester. If a student can get through the first week, he said, they usually make it through the rest of the year with few problems.

"That first kick is so important. You get them going," Wesee said.

One of the most common questions parents new to Canada ask Wesee is what to bring to school on Day 1. "Most of them come from countries where the first day of school the child gets a list of books to bring to school, whereas here it's like, the child goes to school, no list," he said.

Mulimbwa's biggest worry for his children was not what they had to bring, but how well they would do. Mulimbwa couldn't afford schooling for his whole family in Uganda, which meant choosing which of his children could go. So when he came to Canada, he was concerned for the children that hadn't gone to school.

"My first question (was) 'Will my kids catch up?' " he said.

When he talks to the parents, Wesee said, he often explains they don't need to worry, as their child or children will eventually adjust.

"We let them know that -- you know what? -- the child is going to go to school, they're going to figure everything out."

Schools often have programs in place that help students who have recently immigrated to Canada. Marcey Dveris, principal of Weston-area Cecil Rhodes School, said about 30 per cent of the school's student population comes from immigrant families.

"There's a whole protocol of information that we try to gain from the families to get their needs, both academically and socially," Dveris said.

The students themselves often have different worries than their parents. Two of Mulimbwa's children, 15-year-old Alliance and 14-year-old Glodi, started school in March and February respectively.

Alliance said she was nervous about meeting her future fellow students.

"I thought they were going to bully me. I was kind of afraid," she said.

That fear was unfounded, as both girls found their peers and teachers were happy to help them.

"Everyone was so nice, so friendly," she said.

What they weren't prepared for was the size of the schools. Glodi said she got lost moving between classrooms a couple of times, and had to rely on friends to show her the way.

"I didn't know where to go to change classes. Other people, my friends, told me where to go," she said.

Wesee said that's not uncommon.

"Some of them come from small schools, six-classroom schools, three-classroom schools. They come to the big school, where there's first floors, second floors.

They get lost," he said.

On Sept. 4, Alliance and Glodi will have their real first day of Canadian school. Last spring, they were worried about being bullied. But this time?

"I'm nervous about what I'm going to wear," Glodi said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 31, 2013 A6

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