Syrian refugees will pose unique challenges for Canadian schools

The hallways and classrooms at Queen Elizabeth School in Edmonton are already teeming with students from around the world. Now it’s preparing for a wave of children coming from a war zone, including many who have faced horrendous journeys and seen horrors beyond the comprehension of most adults.

Students come with PTSD, educational deficits and resilience, experts say

Sarah Lees helps students with a problem in her Level 3 English class at Queen Elizabeth School in Edmonton. (Terry Reith/CBC)

The hallways and classrooms at Queen Elizabeth School in Edmonton are already teeming with students from around the world.

Now it's preparing for a new wave of children coming from a war zone, including many who have faced brutal journeys and seen horrors beyond the comprehension of most adults.

Yakot Aldarwish, who left Syria with her family after fighting broke out in southern city of Daraa, arrived in Edmonton seven months ago. (CBC)
Nevertheless, principal Sue Bell is nonchalant.

"I actually don't really worry that much because I know that whoever walks through our door we're going to be welcoming and we're going to have a place for them to be and they're going to love it here," she told CBC News.

One third of the 1,250 high school students at Queen Elizabeth have come as refugees or immigrants, so the staff has a lot of expertise. The school already has students from Iraq and Syria.

Yakot Aldarwish, 17, arrived seven months ago from Jordan, where she had spent two years after her family left war-torn Daraa in southern Syria. She's still struggling to learn English and make friends.

Ameer Ali, who came from Iraq, is part of a group of student mentors who help refugees at his school. (CBC)
Things are getting better, she says, but she still has a bleak memory of her first day at a Canadian school: "A new student, a new people, and a new language — and I just sit alone with my sister."

Today she is sitting with Ameer Ali, a bright, articulate teenager from Iraq who faced similar struggles five years ago.

"Language was my first obstacle that I faced," Ali recalled. "Having to make friends was a big deal as well."

Ali sees a real advantage in attending a school with so many international students.

"It made me feel like I was right back home, in a multicultural school," he said. "Made me feel like I was at home, having to worry less about the language, less about making friends. Made me feel better, made it easier."  

Ali is part of an informal mentoring group at the school, students who help guide and orient new arrivals who currently lack the language and social skills necessary to be successful in Canada.

The movement has been gaining momentum for more than five years, as students who received help on their arrival, take it upon themselves to help newer and younger kids.

Refugee influx

No one knows precisely how many school-aged children will be among the 25,000 refugees bound for Canada in the next few months, but given the government's focus on families, it's clear a large proportion will heading into Canadian schools.

About 40 per cent of the youngsters are facing emotional issues, according to a recent survey by the aid group Save the Children. Teachers at schools operated by the agency say more than half the children are easily frightened, while 40 per cent were frequently unhappy.

Many more will be coming with large educational deficits. Close to three million Syrian children are no longer going to school, and half of those who are refugees are not receiving any form of education.

Caroline Keenan, an aid worker who has worked with children in Jordan and Lebanon, says the refugees can be resilient.

"They've been through a lot which also tells us a lot about who they are as children," she said.

"They've been on long journeys, in many cases harrowing journeys. So they have the kind of capacity to function really well under some of the most difficult circumstances."  

Keenan says peer support is important, especially for those arriving at schools that do not have a large number of international students, nor the specialized programming offered at schools such as Queen Elizabeth.

"I think sometimes we forget how resourceful children are, and a buddy is a buddy," Keenan said. "And I've seen lots of children in my travels that don't speak the same language that find ways to communicate with each other, so a buddy system will work."  

Best friends

The buddy system has worked well for Rubina Mohammadadam, 19, an Afghan woman who came to Canada from India and Hodan Ahmed, 18, from Somalia.

Both arrived at Queen Elizabeth School about four years ago, and have become the best of friends. That friendship has been a valuable support as both adapted to new language, culture and country.

Ahmed recognizes it will be a difficult transition for the new arrivals.

"I know it's hard and challenging to come to a new school, a new country, but here actually, the Canadian government gives them a chance for better education, better health care," she said.

"So I think it's not going to be easy, but I think they're more lucky to live in this country where it's peace and like they can build their own future."  

Students Hoden Ahmed and Robina Mohammadadam met at Queen Elizabeth School in Edmonton four years ago, and found that friendship helped ease the transition to a new country, culture and school. (CBC)


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