Syrian refugee language program brings residents and newcomers together

A cafe is bringing local Syrian refugees and community volunteers to help newcomers learn English and about Canadian culture.

Speak English Cafe helping Syrian refugees learn to do just that

Back row from left: Helen Basson, Maisam Ghazal, Momtaz Al Najjar and Glen Soulis. Front row from left: Murad and Malek Al Najjar. Both families are participants in the Speak English Cafe. (Adetayo Bero/CBC)

Learning a new language is often one of the hardest parts of integrating into a new culture.

That is why a local Syrian settlement group is helping refugees in the region through that process.

Every Tuesday evening, Shamrose for Syrian Culture organizes a Speak English Cafe, where newly arrived Syrian refugees can meet residents of Waterloo region and learn English and about Canadian culture.

The Syrians who attend also share aspects of their own culture with the local volunteers.

"We want to introduce both communities," Helen Ala Rashi, an organizer with Shamrose, told CBC News. "While they [learn] about each other, they use English as a tool."

Ala Rashi said knowledge of the English language is hugely important for these newcomers because not knowing it can impede their ability to do things like make a basic appointment or even get a job interview.

From participants to friends

Momtaz Al Najjar and his family came from Syria by way of Egypt in November 2016.

Malek, 9, said he wants to learn English for school and so he can play with friends.

On Tuesday nights, the family has an unofficial arrangement to meet with Helen Basson and her husband Glen Soulis.

Basson and Soulis volunteer at the Speak English Cafe every week, with Basson teaching the couple English, while Soulis plays with their two sons, Malek and Murad.

Helen Basson teaches English to Momtaz Al Najjar and his son, Murad. (Adetayo Bero/ CBC)

A former immigrant herself, Basson was especially moved by the program because she could relate to their struggle of adjusting to a new home. 

But, she has always spoken the English language and had family here to help her settle in.

"Even with all those advantages, I know as a newcomer to Canada, it was still a strange and unusual experience," she said.

The two families have now grown close, visiting each other's homes and sharing dinners together.

"We just hit it off," Basson said.

Basson has also Skyped with the family's relatives, who are living in Egypt, still in exile from Syria.

The Speak English Cafe is held every Tuesday night from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Queen Street Commons Cafe in downtown Kitchener.