More than 1,000 Syrian refugees will be starting new lives in Waterloo Region this year, facing challenges like their first Canadian winter and navigating the health system. 

Ana Luz Martinez, a former refugee from Guatemala who is now the settlement program coordinator for the KW Multicultural Centre, has some advice for region residents who want to help the families adjust. 

Martinez says the refugee families will undergo a number of emotions during their first months here: excitement, fear of the unknown, sadness for what they left behind and eventually, even homesickness.

A family's children will play a key role in creating the community network the whole family needs, says Martinez. That's because the children will be interacting with new classmates and teachers every day, which is often more contact than their parents, who might be at home or taking classes, will have with other adults.

Martinez says neighbours and other parents can also be a valuable source of information when it comes to play groups, drop-in centres, and local facilities such as ice rinks.

What you can do

Here are some tips for parents from Martinez and CBC K-W parenting columnist Tenille Bonoguore:

  • Talk to your children about accepting newcomers, regardless of where someone has come from.
  • Encourage children to welcome everyone who is new at school, not just refugees.
  • Point out that many new arrivals face more challenges such as language or shyness, so encourage children to be patient and understanding.
  • Invite refugee children or families over for play dates. But don't pry for information about what they have gone through. Play time is for play. Set a coffee date if you want an adult chat.
  • Don't make assumptions about cultural issues, because everyone is different.
  • Ask about cultural or dietary restrictions if you're inviting them over for a meal.

Finally, Martinez says although you may be curious about the hardships refugees may have faced, and genuinely interested in helping them, it's important to be sensitive. Remember that some families will need time before they're ready to share their experiences.

Giving newcomers space and building trust is the most important factor to helping a refugee family adjust to their new home.

Books can help

According to Bonoguore, books can also can help shape your conversations with your children.

A few to check out are:

  • "Far Far Away" by Robert Munsch 
  • "When I Get Older" by K'naan
  • "The Cat from Kosovo" by Mary Jane Hampton

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with files from Tenille Bonoguore