Syrian refugees arriving in Toronto over the coming months will face a range of challenges. One particularly difficult challenge is being understood by others.

Arabic is widely spoken in Syria, but obviously not as much in Toronto. 

So, GTA University Lifeline Syria Challenge is offering a linguistic lifeline. It challenges students from four Toronto post-secondary schools — Ryerson, U of T, OCAD University and York — to act as volunteer interpreters.

Currently, there 40 to 50 Arabic-speakers among the 400 volunteers at Ryerson, according to organizers at the university.

Ryerson is offering training seminars for the interpreters.

They begin communicating with the Syrian refugees when they arrive at Pearson Airport.

There, they meet families and help them to connect with their Canadian sponsors. They deliver a handbook they've prepared that lists the essentials of Western life. Those include what to do in an emergency (that is, how to call 911 and what to say), what to say when you go to a doctor's office and accomplishing other basic tasks. 

A family of 14 has already arrived and been helped by the interpreters. Radwan Al-Nachawati is one of the students acting as a volunteer interpreter for some of them.

He was born in Saudi Arabia but is of Syrian descent. He's also a fluent Arabic speaker. He admits he is an amateur interpreter, only helping translate for friends or other personal encounters. But the Ryerson student still jumped at the opportunity to interpret for new arrivals in Toronto.

"After many years of feeling helpless and unsure of what I could do," he said, "it was really exciting to me. It gave me an avenue and platform to help."

Al-Nachawati said the students are sometimes stumped by the Syrian new arrivals, who speak other dialects of Arabic, Aramaic, Kurdish or other languages. So he said sometimes interpreters have to play charades — acting out words — to communicate.

But overall, he sees this as a concrete step in providing resettlement services for Syrian refugees.

"It's not only about bringing the families over," he said, "it's about helping them out when they're here."

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of the story reported that there are 400 Arabic-speaking volunteers at Ryerson University for the GTA University Lifeline Syria Challenge, when in fact there are 40 to 50.
    Nov 18, 2015 5:56 PM ET