Refugees quicker to adapt to Canada than others says ESL teacher

Refugees, like many newcomers to Vancouver, need to learn English quickly if they want to adapt to their new home.

'Sometimes the refugees are my best students because they have a real commitment to Canada,' says Azim Bhimji

A Syrian refugee (C) carries her child in a thermal blanket as refugees and migrants arrive on an overcrowded boat on the Greek island of Lesbos, November 10, 2015. (Reuters/Alkis Konstantinidis)

Refugees, like many newcomers to Vancouver, need to learn English quickly if they want to adapt to their new home. But one English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor says many refugees actually do better in his classes than immigrants.

Experts say adapting to a new culture is one of the hardest aspects of settling in a new country. Working on that often means learning a new language — something refugees are more motivated than some immigrants to do, according to Azim Bhimji, an instructor at Vancouver Community College.

"Sometimes the refugees are my best students because they have a real commitment to Canada. They have severed ties with their own country so they are forced to adapt very quickly whereas some of my other immigrants ... it's a longer process."

Strength from hardship

Azim Bhimji has been teaching English for 25 years in Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) classes, a program that is funded by Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

Students in his class come from all over the world, but usually there are only two or three refugees in the class, he said. But that wasn't the case in 1989, when he first started teaching.

"There were refugees from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Iran, Vietnam. So we would see waves where we may even have half the class refugees."

He says he takes inspiration from the determination refugees show after going through hardships.

Syrian refugees stand outside their tents at a Syrian refugee camp in the town of Hosh Hareem, in the Bekaa valley, east Lebanon. (Credit: AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

"Some of our refugees have been through some difficult times, spent time in prison, wars, refugee camps," he said, recalling the time he taught a group of Ethiopians who spent four years in a refugee camp before coming to Vancouver.

"When they come here, they have opportunities now for the first time in their life."

Bhimji says he expects to see more refugees in the next couple of months, with B.C. set to accept 400 Syrian refugees by the end of the year.

Teaching more than English

All of Bhimiji's students are adults, and he says LINC courses focus on teaching newcomers "settlement English," which is English that people need to know in order to do everyday tasks.

"This is one of our aims, to try and encourage the students to access community services. We help them find volunteer jobs so that they are using the language."

He also takes students on field trips.

"We'll take them to community centres, libraries, we'll take them to immigrant services agencies, they've even been to the CBC," he said.

But one Canadian value Bhimiji says the students in his class learn all by themselves is multiculturalism.

"You have people from so many other cultures. At first there's reluctance, there's a little suspicion. But at the end of the term sometimes they're best friends."


To listen to the full audio, click the link labelled: Teaching Syrian refugees English.

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