'We can welcome all of them': Montreal school board says it's ready for asylum seekers

It's the first day of school for the 2,600 new students enrolled with Montreal's Marguerite-Bourgeoys school board, and while only one family of asylum seekers has signed up, the board says it is ready for an influx if it comes.

Marguerite-Bourgeoys schools are prepared for influx of new students, says board president

Rahouadja Zarzi says she loves teaching and welcoming students from different cultures. (CBC)

Tuesday morning, Rahouadja Zarzi stood in the schoolyard of École Jacques-Bizard on Île Bizard, holding the colourful poster she made with a list of names on it to welcome her new students.

They came from around the world.

"It's new faces, new kids and a new adventure," Zarzi said in her classroom Monday, a smile spreading across her face. "It's always fun … I really love my job.

Tuesday is the first day of school for the 2,600 new students enrolled with Montreal's Marguerite-Bourgeoys school board, the highest number of new arrivals the board has ever had.

Many of the new pupils are children of immigrants, according to board president Diane Lamarche-Venne.

The wave of asylum seekers crossing the border from the United States, many of them children, hasn't really affected those numbers yet, says Lamarche-Venne, but she said the board will be ready when the influx begins.

'They're going to be OK'

The first family of asylum seekers to sign up with Marguerite-Bourgeoys, the Lezinscars, handed in their application Monday.

Handson Lezinscar, his wife Edith and their three children — two of which are old enough to go to school — are Haitian, and came to Montreal from Boston because they feared deportation following U.S. President Donald Trump's threat to end the temporary protected status of almost 60,000 Haitians in the country by January.

"I know it's going to be a little hard for them because they already started at an English school," said Lezinscar of his kids. "But I think they're going to be OK."

The Lezinscar family recently crossed the border into Canada, and the two school-aged children have been enrolled for school. (CBC)

Lezinscar's 10-year-old daughter Handsonique said she was excited to learn French and make new friends. Plus, her favourite subject is math, a transcendent language.

The family is among thousands that see Canada as their only hope to avoid returning to their country, where they say it is not safe. They are seeking asylum and "a better life" here. 

School board ready

Lamarche-Venne says the school board is ready to accept any other young asylum seekers that sign up and need to go to school, adding it would accommodate whatever influx of students there may be. 

She said the influx wouldn't affect the quality of education in the schools, even if it increased.

"If they come, we can welcome all of them," she said, explaining that the board had started a bank of teachers trained for the special welcoming classes like the ones Zarzi oversees.

Zarzi is one of the at least 180 teachers within the school board who will welcome children from families who just arrived to Canada.

Those kids are first placed in classes designed to help integrate them into the school system by teaching them French.

Learning a new language in a foreign place

Zarzi says she tries to make her students feel at home. 

"It's very important in the class for them to feel as if they are a family and even if they don't speak the language of the others, they can speak with their hands."

Zarzi says she uses body language a lot, too, at first, to communicate with the allophone students. But when they become uneasy, cry or need to be reassured, she'll switch to English, a language they usually know a bit of already.

"I don't want them to be completely lost," she said.

Rahouadja Zarzi's theme for her class this year is 'little monsters.' She will welcome 18 Tuesday, the first day of school. (CBC)

To make it all easier, Zarzi has a tip for parents who want to support their children: learn French too. She encourages her students to be "little teachers" to their moms and dads.

But she also worries a number of the asylum seekers, some of whom could be future students, may have their claims rejected, a fate that has befallen some of her past students.

As for the Lezinscars, they are in the process of filing their asylum claim and are crossing their fingers they'll be able to stay.

"Haitian people, we are hard workers, we came to Canada to put our heads together with the Canadian people," said Handson Lezinscar.

With files from Simon Nakonechny