When Mati Ullah Bottar arrived in Montreal from Pakistan in 2012 at the age of 19, he had no idea how difficult it would be to get into a school without knowing a word of English.

He has come a long way since then, but he clearly remembers how the first school he approached rejected him.  

"They told me, 'Your English level is really, really weak...and you can't be in this school,'" said Bottar, who spoke Urdu, Punjabi and Hindi when he arrived in Montreal.

Bottar, who came to Montreal to join his mother, said it was humbling to realize he needed basic English as a second language before taking courses to complete secondary one through five. 

Pearson Adult Career Centre (PACC)

He signed up at Pearson Adult Career Centre (PACC), which is part of the Lester B. Pearson School Board, and the reality of having years of studies ahead of him before applying to university started to sink in.

"It's at that time you feel depressed," he said.

But with encouragement from his English teacher, Rebecca MacDonald, Bottar persevered and graduated last summer.

'It's pretty exciting'

Now Bottar's English is strong, and he works part-time helping to organize a talent show run by the school board.

"You will be amazed to know I am using all my energy and all my language I have learned. I'm talking to students, I'm talking to parents who are part of the show...It's pretty exciting," he said.

Bottar has started classes at Dawson College. He wants to study biomedical lab technology. He is working on his French skills, and he plans to stay in Montreal for "the rest of my life." 

"Montreal has given me so much, so I think I should pay back by staying here and doing hard work," Bottar said. 

Zainab's story

Bottar's friend and former classmate Zainab Lalaqa is also familiar with the struggle to learn English. She arrived from Afghanistan in 2011 at the age of 21, shortly after her wedding.

Although she spoke four languages at the time (Urdu, Hindi, Persian and Pashto), she did not speak a word of English and needed her husband to accompany her everywhere and translate everything.  

English language courses also seemed overwhelming at first.

"At the beginning I was crying, and then I said to my husband, 'I don't want to do this: it's not me, it's like a baby, I don't know anything,'" Lalaqa said.

'She's like my mom'

But like Bottar, Lalaqa persevered. She said her husband was very supportive, as was her teacher, Rebecca MacDonald.

"She is amazing. She's like my mom. She taught me how to speak...how to face everything," Lalaqa said. 

Except for the six months she took off during her pregnancy, Lalaqa has studied English non-stop since arriving in Montreal.

She completed her high school diploma and was valedictorian at her graduation.

"I couldn't believe it. I wrote about a 10-page speech by myself," she said.

"I remember (when) I couldn't even write a sentence."

Lalaqa just started studying health sciences at Champlain College, and she hopes to one day give back to the teachers who helped her.

She said after getting into college, receiving a loan and bursary and earning her driver's licence, she's now preparing to write her citizenship exam and is determined to stay in Montreal.

Lalaqa knows that means working on her French, too – her fifth language.

"I speak a little bit of French. I would love to learn more. I'm going to learn," she insists.