When Syrian refugee children get settled in Canada their lasting first impression of the country will come from their new classmates.
The Canadian government has pledged to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February. 160 of them arrived Thursday in Toronto, the first group to arrive on a Canadian government sponsored airplane.
When the children get to school their classmates will need to know what to expect, and how to help a student who might have spent their early years surrounded by horrific violence. These might become the most important relationships the new refugees make.
Kathy Georgiades, an associate professor at McMaster University's Offord Centre for Child Studies, says that Canadian school children have a very important role to play. She has some advice for parents and teachers. Click or tap on the image at the top of this page to listen to her full interview with the CBC's Conrad Collaco. You can read an edited and abridged transcript of that interview below.
Kathy Georgiades, McMaster University's Offord Centre for Child Studies
Q: How difficult will it be for Syrian refugee children to get comfortable in a new school system in a new country?
It will be overwhelming but also, possibly, very exciting to come to a country like Canada, a safe country. So, there will be a sense of relief but also they'll be overwhelmed entering such a different social and cultural environment. It will be a mix of emotions, both positive and those characterized with worry and anxiety.
Q: How will having children who have suffered the mental and/or physical trauma of war affect a classroom?
It's very important for teachers to be prepared to welcome these children into their classrooms. It's important to acknowledge the remarkable levels of resiliency these children often have. They come with many, many strengths as well as many difficult past experiences in terms of violence. It's important for educators to be informed about the signs of mental health difficulties — feelings of sadness, withdrawal, headaches, dizziness and stomach aches. As educators it's important to know the signs and the resources in the community that can help.
It's also important to acknowledge that not all of these children will be coming in with mental health difficulties. That's not the case. Some will flourish with appropriate supports
Q: What role can Canadian school kids play in the settlement of their new Syrian refugee classmates?
A very important one. On a day-to-day basis these Syrian children will interact with their new classmates. It's very important that we create classrooms that are welcoming and accepting and try to reduce the discriminatory attitudes that often exist in our environments. We want to make sure they are not bullied. That sometimes happens. It's important we teach all children to accept one another and embrace children from different cultures and religious backgrounds.
Q: What should parents be telling their children about their new classmates from Syria?
As parents we want to teach our children that all children are equal. It doesn't matter what colour their skin is, what their religion is, if they know English or what their religion is. As children we are all equal. We need to be kind to one another and respect one another. These are essential emotional skills that all children should have.
Q: Do we have the resources we need to meet their mental, physical and educational needs the students will have?
That's a difficult question to answer. It is enough? I probably can't speak to that. We have resources, but the sheer numbers coming might pose challenges in systems that many people would argue are under-resourced.
Q: Have you seen anything like this before?
No. Not on this scale. In terms of the numbers that are coming and the time-period in which they are coming — I haven't seen anything like this before.
Q: How should schools prepare for the arrival of refugee children?
Foster a sense of belonging and connectedness in a school. Make sure the environments are free of bullying and discrimination. That's very important. Don't place the responsibility only on refugee children for them to succeed but really it's the responsibility of all students to help those refugee children succeed.