The recent arrival of close to 700 Syrian refugees has some Manitobans worried about the impact they will have on resources and services.

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This article was published 19/2/2016 (2161 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The recent arrival of close to 700 Syrian refugees has some Manitobans worried about the impact they will have on resources and services.

A Winnipeg teacher who has worked with newcomer kids for more than a decade in the province’s most diverse neighbourhood has some advice.

"Don’t freak out."

Anita Riedl, an English as an additional language teacher at General Wolfe School in Winnipeg’s West End, has seen the EAL program at the school double in size with the resettlement of families from around the world. "The kids just want to learn," she said.

In the heart of the most diverse neighbourhood in Manitoba, staff and students have worked to make the school "newcomer-friendly."

In the school library of all places, indigenous, newcomer and mainstream students unite for a drumming circle where they get in synch and bang out some beats.

The human rights club Riedl oversees made greeting cards to put in for backpacks of school supplies for newly arrived Syrian school kids. Her fellow EAL teacher, Jorge Rivero-Vallada, came up with the idea to post the flags of all the students’ former countries near the school entrance. The token reminders of where they came from greet the students when they arrive every morning.

The most important thing to the newcomer kids at the middle school, though, is learning.

"You notice that they’re very keen," said Rivero-Vallada.

Keen like Grade 9 student Omar Faysal. His family was forced to flee fighting in Iraq and went to neighbouring Syria. When war broke out in Syria, Omar’s family fled to Lebanon. In the mayhem, he missed several years of schooling by the time his family came to Canada last year. When he arrived at General Wolfe School in the fall, he knew some English words but couldn’t carry on a conversation. Six months later, he’s chatty and helping fellow students in Rivero-Vallada’s math class.

"It’s easy now," said Omar. Like other kids first schooled in Arabic, he had to learn to read and write letters and numbers from left to right instead of right to left. "That took me two months to figure out."

He has a best friend at school — Khalid Alakool — who’s been through similar refugee experiences moving from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon. Both boys arrived in Canada with no English. Both are upbeat about their futures, mulling over careers as mechanics, soccer players and interpreters. Khalid has a lingering sadness for a younger brother who was unable to travel to Canada and stayed in Lebanon with an uncle.

"I want my six-year-old brother to come," he said.

The stories of the EAL students are heartbreaking and encouraging.

Ridwan Arab, 15, came to Canada in 2011 from the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab in Kenya. Her family fled civil war in Somalia and could only afford to send her older brother and sister to school, she said. The petite Grade 9 student is making up for lost time and soaking up every bit of learning she can get.

"I like learning new words and doing new things," said Ridwan, who dreams of being a chef.

Her friend Ruweda Mohamed, 15, was born in Saudi Arabia but, as a Somali with few rights in that country, attending school was a struggle. Like her friend Ridwan, she’s catching up and forging ahead.

"I like science and social studies," said Ruweda, who wants to be a doctor. "I don’t like math," she admitted. "It’s depressing."

The EAL students’ enthusiasm and resilience make Riedl wonder if she could ever go back to teaching a mainstream class. "They’re so resilient — they learn and adapt and are really strong and survive," she said. "Students have experienced things we in Canada take for granted — like going to school, being able to say what you want to say or to just go outside and play, and having enough food."

"It’s changed my view of the world completely," said Reiedl. "Some kids are navigating through school who’d never been to school. A lot of the kids come from schools with one teacher and 60 kids, so it’s all rote learning and memorizing," she said. "When they come here, they’re learning a whole new culture of learning: asking questions and making predictions."

Riedl said a friend who grew up in Kenya told her how difficult it is to have a teacher here asking students for their opinions and urging them to ask questions. "Back home, those things lead to trouble," he told her.

She’s learned a lot from her students — including a former one who now works with refugee children and told Riedl what Winnipeg would be like without newcomers.

"This city would be cold and boring."

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.