Syrian refugees get online tutoring from McGill University students

A group of about 15 McGill University students has been offering one-hour tutoring sessions via Skype to Syrian refugees living in Turkey, who hope to attend university in Canada.

Students use Skype to help those who dream of studying in Canada

McGill student Meg Rapp tutors Mohamad Alahmad and Khaled Khatab, two Syrian refugees trying to improve their English in hopes of studying at a Canadian university. (Shari Okeke)

After giving just a few tutoring sessions to Syrian refugees online, Meg Rapp is already emotionally invested in their future and hopes to meet them if their dreams of attending university in Canada come true. 

Rapp, a first-year science student, is part of a small group of students at McGill University that has started tutoring six young Syrians via Skype.

"It's just a great way for us to connect with them and not only teach them English but show them there's someone here in Canada who's interested in them and wants to invest in them and cares about them," Rapp said. 

The pilot project was launched by about 15 students in McGill's Living-Learning Community, a program in which a group of students living at the Solin Hall residence collaborates on a long-term project under the guidance of a faculty member.

After consulting a Syrian Montrealer who works with the Al Salam school for Syrian refugee children in Turkey, the McGill students learned that the volunteer teaching English at that school will soon be leaving.

They decided to step in to fill the gap, with one-hour tutoring sessions via Skype.

Daybreak's Shari Okeke has the story on a group of McGill students who are providing English-language tutoring to Syrian refugees who hope to come to Canada. 10:01

The Syrian students are preparing to write the TOEFL exam, which measures ability to use English at the university level, in the hopes of eventually studying at a Canadian university.

During tutoring sessions, which began this week, they've been eager to talk about their dreams of winning scholarships, gaining acceptance to Canadian universities and moving to Canada.

"I hope to achieve my dreams in order to help the rest of people in Syria, to help the Syrian refugees in Turkey now and students in Al Salam school that are like me," said Mohamad Alahmad, an 18-year-old Syrian refugee who hopes to study information technology at McGill University.

McGill University students hold a meeting via Skype with teacher at Al Salam school for Syrian refugees in Turkey. (Anita Nowak)
McGill students are adapting the tutoring sessions to meet the needs of the Syrian students and they are conscious not to ask personal questions about the traumas the refugees may have experienced.

"If they want to open up about what their story is, then that's great and we should talk to them about it, but if they don't, then they don't have to talk about it," said Anton Zyngier, a first-year McGill student interested in international development and geography.

Tutoring sessions involve conversations as well as some written homework assignments.

'Piece of cake'

For their part, the Syrian students are getting a kick out of learning various expressions.

"Like 'piece of cake' means 'easy', the 'ball in your court' and 'give the green light'" are some they've learned so far," said Khaled Khateb, a 17-year-old Syrian refugee who dreams of becoming a mechanical engineer or a journalist.

Now the McGill students are reaching out to others at Solin Hall, hoping they'll get involved in tutoring or fundraising to buy more textbooks.

At the moment, all six of the Syrian students in the pilot project are sharing one textbook.

Phoebe Colby, a McGill student originally from Vancouver, said she hopes the project also raises awareness about the refugee crisis.

"I'd also love to draw in the broader McGill — if not Montreal — community into what we're doing so we have a broader base of connection and networking and so that people get to understand on a human level what's going on," Colby said. 

After just one week of tutoring, Colby and the other McGill students in the pilot project say they're now emotionally invested.

"That's the most important lesson of this whole Syrian refugee crisis — that we live in Canada where there's so much opportunity and to give people a chance to pursue their dreams is a gift that we can all afford to give," said McGill lecturer Anita Nowak, who is the mentor overseeing the pilot project.

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