British Columbia

Refugee families in Burnaby adjust to new life with help of Canadian mentors

Dozens of refugee families in Burnaby are being paired up with Arabic-speaking Canadian mentors that are helping the newcomers adjust to life in B.C.

Arabic-speaking volunteers share tips on how to get a cell phone, recycle and drive a car

Sisters Waed and Islam Al-Abbas are adjusting to life in Canada, with the help of a Canadian mentor named Rita Koujian. (CBC)

A new program in Burnaby, B.C. is helping Syrian refugees by pairing them with a Canadian mentor that can help them understand life and culture in Canada.

The program, offered by the Burnaby School District, has matched seven Arabic-speaking volunteers with 27 recently arrived Syrian refugee families. 

Volunteer mentor Rita Koujian — who arrived in Canada last year as a privately-sponsored Syrian refugee — said the program gives her an opportunity to give back.

Other volunteers in the program have been in Canada for several years. 

Rita Koujian helps a recently arrived Syrian refugee navigate a map at Metrotown mall. Rita is a volunteer mentor to newly-arrived refugees in Burnaby. (CBC)

Recycling and cell phones

Koujian has been paired with several families, including the Al-Abaas family, that arrived in Canada two months ago.

"I introduced them to the school in Burnaby and then I helped them with filling in forms and introducing them to the community," said Koujian.

"[I explained] how transportation works by bus and train, the most reasonable prices for the shops for food." 

Whether it's getting a cell phone contract or learning the concept of recycling, Canadian mentors are helping refugees without English skills, understand life and culture.

The Al-Abaas family has nine children ranging in age from 4 months to 20 years old.

The Al-Abbas family arrived in Burnaby as Government-Assisted Refugees earlier this year. The family of nine is benefiting from the help of a Canadian mentor. (CBC News )

How can we drive a car?

Koujian is like an older sister to the two eldest Al-Abaas children, Waed and Islam.

"They are asking about education, about driving a car, how we can drive a car, about the general life for girls in Canada," said Koujian.

"In the previous country, they always feel that they are stressed and they should be reserved, but here they're happy to having the rights of the woman and be more free and happy." 

Koujian has helped the family understand pricing and shopping in Canada, whether it's for clothes at Metrotown mall or groceries at Superstore.

'So thankful'

Yusraa Al-Abaas tells Koujian that having a Canadian mentor has been tremendously helpful, especially since no one in the family currently speaks any English.

"They are so thankful and grateful for people like me who are helping them because they are feeling like they are lost and they want to catch someone's hand to help lead the way," she said.

Rita is one of seven Arabic-speaking volunteers helping refugee families through the Burnaby School District.

The district is currently looking for more Arabic-speaking Canadian volunteers for the program.

To hear Bal Brach's report about the mentor program, listen to the audio labelled: Refugee families in Burnaby adjust to new life with help of Canadian mentors

About the Author

Bal Brach


Bal Brach is an award-winning reporter at CBC News Vancouver. She has more than a decade of experience working in television, radio and online news across Canada. Bal's storytelling skills have earned her a Jack Webster Award. She is also the recipient of regional and national Radio Television Digital News Association awards. Bal can be reached at or on social media @BalBrach