Syrian refugees pose challenges for B.C. schools

Syrian refugee children are eager to start school in B.C. after missing years of education. Their arrival poses challenges for school administrators, who will have to assess their English and grade levels.

Administrators prepare for hundreds of children, many of whom have missed years of school

A pilot project by Toronto's public and Catholic school board will mean children living at the Toronto Plaza Hotel in the Wilson Road and Highway 401 area can register to attend school during morning periods to get a feel for what they can expect when they begin school full-time. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

As most B.C. kids return to classes after the winter break, many Syrian refugee children are looking forward to their first day of school in years. 

"I cannot wait to go to school," said Shergo Kurdi, the 15-year-old nephew of Tima Kurdi.  

"I couldn't wait until I am in Canada and to be a kid again and to start my new life."

Shergo Kurdi and his sister Haveen haven't been able to attend school since 2012.

Now, along with other Syrian refugee children that have been arriving in B.C. in recent weeks, they are beginning the process of being placed in classrooms and filling in the gaps in their education. 

An average of three years' missed education

The interrupted education is one of the biggest challenges for school districts welcoming Syrian refugee children. 

"Based on what we have seen so far, and what we are expecting, an average student has missed school for three years. So we're looking at a three years' gap in schooling," said Haval Ahmad, a settlement worker at the Burnaby School District

"Some schools existed in the refugee camps, but really there were no sets of standards." 

Burnaby school district settlement worker Haval Ahmad says the average refugee student has missed about three years of school. (Burnaby school district)

UNICEF says 13.7 million out of 34 million school age children in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Sudan are not getting an education, almost double the number five years ago.

Ahmad says Burnaby is beginning to see the first few registrations of what he expects to be hundreds of new students in the coming months, as Canada settles 25,000 Syrian refugees. 

The first step for refugee students is to take an English Language Learner (ELL) assessment.

But Ahmad says it can take months to determine exactly what level of courses they should be taking. 

"For instance, a student could be doing really good in math, but because of their English vocabulary, they might not understand the concepts." 

Where to put these students? 

Another challenge is where to put the new students, in a school system that is already often stretched to capacity. 

Caroline Lai, the manager of Surrey Schools' English Language Learner Welcome Centre, says they are also expecting a few hundred Syrian refugee students.

"If they do all live in one area, then I think ... we'll be devising a plan of having students perhaps transported to different schools that are not as full." 

An art class at the Surrey Schools ELL Welcome Centre, where refugee students will be assessed when they first arrive in the district. (Surrey ELL Welcome Centre)

Lai says it's important that Syrian students be placed into regular classes with their own age group, rather than concentrated in a class geared just for refugees. 

"Our goal is to empower students and to integrate them," she said. 

"We don't want to take that high school experience away from them or their elementary school experience away from them." 

However, Lai says many Syrian refugee students over the age of 15 won't be able to graduate from high school, since they won't accumulate enough credits. 

She says in that case, students will be encouraged to continue their education as adult learners after age 19. 

Lai says a professional development day will be held for B.C. teachers in February to help them prepare for teaching Syrian refugee students. 

About the Author

Catherine Rolfsen

'Finding Refuge' story producer

Catherine Rolfsen is a story producer with The Early Edition at CBC Radio Vancouver, currently following stories of Syrian refugees in B.C. Catherine's work has been recognized with regional and national awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association. Reach her at catherine.rolfsen@cbc.ca or @crolfsen

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