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This article was published 20/11/2016 (1057 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
As Canada continues to welcome thousands of Syrian refugees, the public school system is taking on the challenge of integrating them into Canadian society.
English teachers are tasked with teaching them a new language as they try to ease their transition into a new way of life with vastly different customs and values.
The Seven Oaks School Division in Winnipeg works with immigrants more than any other in the province, says Jana McKee, the division’s program manager for immigrant services. While it has made a serious commitment to working with Syrian refugees, the language workers in Seven Oaks say it’s difficult to educate them because many have been displaced and have experienced trauma before arriving in Canada.
"Seven Oaks has the highest settlement of immigrants in Manitoba for the past 10 years," McKee says.
"Our student body is, depending on the school, mostly immigrants."
Approximately 2,000 Syrians came to Manitoba in February and March as part of what the division calls the "Syrian Initiative." With this influx, the federal government asked the division to change its English as an additional language (EAL) program to focus more on literacy.
The division works with 30 Syrian families, some as large as seven or eight people.
Lisa Cariou is an EAL instructor at the Seven Oaks Adult Learning Centre. She mostly teaches reading and writing to Syrian adults.
'Most immigrants who come and you're teaching English to them, they're so grateful. It's really fulfilling, generally' — EAL instructor Lisa Cariou
She says her job can be challenging, especially when some of the students don’t know how to properly hold a pen or pencil. She tries to focus on practical tasks the students can apply to their new lives in Canada.
"They need to know the alphabet because they need to fill in a form at the doctor’s," says Cariou.
"They need to know certain signs, like the hospital sign or a stop sign in case of emergency. For me, I’m always trying to tie it back to something they really need."
The Winnipeg School Division and Seven Oaks School Division have different approaches. In Seven Oaks, Syrian students are scattered throughout the division at multiple schools and are part of regular classes. Where they are placed depends on their age.
The WSD has organized classes just for Syrians, creating a community of Syrian students in one school. McKee doesn’t like the WSD approach.
"They don’t get to meet other Canadians, and they don’t get to practise English," she said.
In the past, McKee says one student was in a school with just one other Arabic speaker, and he can speak English now. Others who were in an EAL group with other Syrians don’t speak English as well.
However, having the students scattered at different schools presents logistical challenges.
"We have Syrians in eight different schools, which makes our support really hard because we have to visit eight different schools, and each school has two or three different classes," says McKee.
Some Syrian students need a translator to communicate, while others who have been here longer can speak English fluently.
Sara Mahdi, a Syrian Grade 7 student at La Barriere Crossings School, says the language barrier was tough to overcome at first, but it became easier as she went along.
"For the first two years, it was really hard because my English wasn’t that good," says Mahdi, 12.
"But then moving on it was OK, and I really like school now."
Sara, who came to Winnipeg five years ago, says she took English classes before going to middle school.
"It was kind of like a school for newcomers," Sara says.
"At that time there weren’t a lot of Syrians in Winnipeg, but there were people from a lot of other countries. If I didn’t go there, my English wouldn’t be as good right now."
For Cariou, her job is a difficult balancing act. She has to have compassion and understanding for where these students come from while trying to focus on the language skills and weaknesses of each student.
"If a student comes up to me with a problem, and it’s related to English, I can help them," Cariou says.
"But if it’s a problem related to racism or family issues, I’ll talk to them, but I’ll refer them to our settlement workers."
Cariou has begun teaching her fall EAL course to adult Syrians. She is energetic and enthusiastic in the classroom, waving her hands wildly to explain concepts. It’s a Wednesday morning, and she is talking about fishing.
"Lake Winnipeg, the Red River," Cariou says, as she lists off different fishing spots in the province.
There are 12 students in the room — eight men and four women. Some of them ask about beaches, and Cariou explains beaches are for swimming, not fishing.
When the students take a break, they are asked to come back at 10:30 a.m. Some of them stroll in casually at 10:35 a.m., illustrating a strong contrast from the regimented school schedule that exists in Canada.
Overall, the tone of the room is positive. For this lesson, students sit in groups. Some are jovial and relaxed, while others are more reserved and focused.
Cariou says her job can be challenging, but adds it’s also rewarding.
"Most immigrants who come and you’re teaching English to them, they’re so grateful," she says.
"It’s really fulfilling."
Nolan Kowal is a senior journalism student in the Creative Communications program at Red River College. This article was the product of a feature-writing assignment.