Learning made easier for refugee families

Community Connections helps students, parents adapt to school system


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Twenty schools throughout Winnipeg are offering a new program that is a refuge for refugees.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/01/2017 (2167 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Twenty schools throughout Winnipeg are offering a new program that is a refuge for refugees.

The goal of Community Connections is to aid newcomers such as the more than 1,000 Syrian refugees who arrived in Manitoba last year and were resettled in homes throughout Winnipeg. Set up last March in five school divisions, the program helps recent refugee arrivals stay connected to services and stay within the social safety net.

“Some haven’t been in school for many years,” said Heather Robertson, program co-ordinator at NEEDS Inc. (Newcomers Employment and Education Development Services), which runs the program.

SUPPLIED In the fall, Community Connections organized a field trip for newcomer students at Wellington School to visit Winnipeg Harvest and learn about volunteering in their community.

Many refugees experienced trauma, and sometimes it shows up in their behaviour at school. Not knowing the language is another hurdle.

“What they’re not able to express in words sometimes comes out in behaviour,” Robertson said.

NEEDS got federal funding to set up the program. It hired eight community connectors and eight assistants who act as interpreters to help orient, connect and integrate newly arrived refugee kids to their new school and neighbourhood. The staff also connects with the students’ families.

“We’re constantly checking in with the needs of the children at that school to identify what they need to work on,” said Marleah Graff, who was hired as a community connector at Mulvey and Wellington schools.

“Some classrooms may say they’re struggling with group or team work, so we work on that after school,” said Graff, who has previous experience working with newcomer kids.

“I’m finding now that many of the children are struggling with how to express their emotions in English and how to self-regulate,” said Graff.

“For lots of them, this is their first school experience.”

They missed out on the things children usually learn in kindergarten and Grade 1, “like how to line up and to raise a hand to ask a question.”

Community Connections teaches them about school structure and adjusting to life in Canada, said Graff.

“We’ve done a lot of winter weather preparation — how to dress properly, how to avoid frostbite,” she said.

In the summer, they ran a “recreational/educational camp” four afternoons a week.

“It was providing lessons on safety, community, nutrition and building up social skills and connecting them to safe places in the community where they can have fun,” said Graff. “We got them library cards so they could access Arabic-English library books.”

They regularly reach out to families, too, to see if they need help, said Robertson. They organize events to connect with parents, such as a fall field trip for the families to see the geese migration at FortWhyte Alive, for instance.

“That was a very Canadian experience,” said Robertson. “When families feel welcome and supported, they feel better about their kids participating… It’s a better settlement experience for everyone.”

Graff said they’re in touch with families every week.

“We call them to let them know about different activities in the community and school.

“More parental involvement is expected,” such as volunteering and attending parent-teacher conferences, she said.

“Parents need to feel comfortable so they can interact. When you don’t speak English, communicating with the school can be intimidating,” said Graff. “It helps to have the community connector assistants there (as interpreters) so parents can talk in their own first language.”

Schools often have little time to prepare for the new students who may not speak English or may not have been in a classroom before.

“It’s very challenging,” said principal Rex Ferguson-Baird at Brooklands School in the St. James-Assiniboia School Division. Last year, his school welcomed 12 Syrian and Eritrean students. Community Connections helped the school help the newcomer students, he said.

“I think we would’ve seen more behavioural issues, as kids don’t understand the nuances of culture and get into conflicts,” said Ferguson-Baird.

One project saw all of Brooklands’ students sharing their roots and cultural heritage through art, he said.

The refugee kids learned about indigenous culture and that many fellow students have roots outside Canada, too. At an intercultural dinner, refugee students and their families and fellow students and their families shared traditional foods.

“The hope was to build that community capacity around being neighbours,” said Ferguson-Baird. “This is the kind of programming that will help facilitate the transition of these folks into our city and our province.”


Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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