Refugee turned inner-city principal wants to make an impact on next generation of students

Forty years after landing in Canada as a refugee, Vinh Huynh is in a position to impact the lives of inner-city children who were once in his shoes.

Nearly 30 percent of the 700 students at Gordon Bell High School are newcomers

Vinh Huynh is a former refugee who is now the principal of Gordon Bell High School in Winnipeg. (Ahmar Khan/CBC)

Forty years after landing in Canada as a refugee, Vinh Huynh is in a position to impact the lives of inner-city children who were once in his shoes.

Huynh, now the principal of his alma mater, Gordon Bell High School in Winnipeg, hopes to change students' lives for the better — the same way his old teachers helped him, beginning with the principal of his elementary school in Birtle, Man.

The principal was Bob Marshall, and the school was Birtle Elementary School. The small town was the first place the Huynh family called home in Manitoba. It was there, Huynh says, that Marshall's kindness put him on his career path to become an educator.

"My brother and me spent three days in the principal's office, and he really knew what we needed was that sense of safety and security," said Huynh.

"He wanted to make sure that my brother and I were welcome and that we were basically protected and that our learning was important."

The Huynh family came to Manitoba as refugees from Vietnam, after spending time in refugee camps in Malaysia. After a transitional camp in Montreal, the family was flown to Winnipeg for a day before moving with other refugee families to Birtle.

Back then, Huynh says Marshall took extra steps to interact with Huynh as often as he could, ensuring he was not lost in a whirlwind of schoolwork and social divisions.

The Huynh family came to Winnipeg as Vietnamese refugees after spending time in Malaysia in refugee camps. (Ahmar Khan/CBC)

"His actions, the decision that underlined it and the ways in which he interacted with us — I keep that in my heart, in my mind, as being crucial to how should I then be in the system to all the students that come through these doors," Huynh said.

Decades later, as a new school year was about to begin, Huynh said he was looking forward to imparting that wisdom to his staff.

A sense of welcome, belonging

Of the more than 700 kids attending Gordon Bell High School this year, Huynh says at least 30 per cent are newcomers to Canada. He recognizes the instant challenges they could face in trying to fit in, not knowing the language and other struggles, but using his own story of success, he knows their opportunities are truly unlimited.

"Children, regardless of, you know, your economic or cultural background [or] where you come from — I think the key thing is that the idea that all students can learn, if they're given the kind of support and encouragement that they need," he said.

Huynh says his own experiences as a student have helped shape his outlook as an educator. He attended the high school himself, after his family moved to Winnipeg from Birtle in his youth.

"My ties with this school are deeply ingrained and I know what the students need. I can help them, because I was them at one point," he said.

"[We need to be] offering students … the opportunities that they need so that they can feel welcome, giving them a sense of belonging. Those are the essential needs of a human being."

Compassion, respect the key

Going into this school year, Huynh says he'll be following a similar game plan to the one exemplified by his former principal Marshall: be on the frontlines, in the classrooms and roaming the halls, to talk to students instead of waiting for them to seek help.

"I still remember a Christmas coming up and he brought my brother and I our first pair of skates … I'm a skater [now] and I love to skate since then," he said.

Vinh Huynh credits his principal at Birtle Elementary School, Bob Marshall, for inspiring him to become an educator. (Ahmar Khan/CBC)

"It's about being both compassionate, but also being respectful — understanding that you know young people need both love, but that love needs to be put it within the context of the structures and boundaries and expectations."

He said leaders in schools need to show initiative and not expect students to come to them.

"If you actually look at my office here, I actually don't have a sitting desk. I have a standing desk — that's symbolic for me," he said. "I don't … sit in my office, I am out and about."

Although the challenges facing students now are different from those in his time, Huynh says the pressure to succeed is still relevant. He added trying to navigate the growth of technology is a challenge for all educators.

"There's a range of mental health issues that we need to address, there's the sense of disconnection that comes with not connecting within the schools and the wider community. … There's also a risk factor that comes with … living in this new world," he said.

"We need to be there for them, even when they struggle, and face tough times. Compassion and support will always work."

Gordon Bell principal wants to make an impact on the next generation

2 years ago
Forty years after landing in Canada as a refugee, Vinh Huynh is in a position to impact the lives of inner-city children who were once in his shoes. 2:20


Ahmar Khan

CBC News

Ahmar Khan is a reporter with CBC Ottawa. Prior to joining the Ottawa newsroom, he spent six years in television, radio and digital media reporting in Winnipeg, Vancouver, Victoria, Kamloops, B.C., and Toronto. He can be followed at @AhmarSKhan on Twitter.