Syrian refugees get new textbooks, more tutoring thanks to McGill students

After being featured on CBC Montreal's Daybreak, a pilot project by McGill University students aimed at helping Syrian refugees improve their English, has attracted support from Montreal, Ontario and as far away as London, Australia and South Korea.

Pilot project, featured on Daybreak, attracts support from London, Australia and South Korea

McGill students Keenan Tanaka and Tiffany Leung tutor Mohamad Alahmad, a Syrian refugee in Turkey, who hopes to study at McGill University. (Shari Okeke)

Since starting a pilot project earlier this month offering tutoring sessions to Syrian refugees online, a small group of students at McGill University's Solin Hall residence has attracted support and attention from as far as London, Australia and South Korea.

"It's really touching and really uplifting," said Keenan Tanaka, a first-year philosophy student at McGill, originally from San Diego.

Daybreak's Shari Okeke has an update on a project by McGill students to tutor Syrian refugees over the internet. The students have now received support from around the world. 7:35

Tanaka is one of about 15 students who launched the social impact project earlier this month that was featured on CBC Montreal's Daybreak.

They're part of McGill's Living-Learning Community, a program in which a group of students living in residence collaborates on a long-term project under the guidance of a faculty member.

McGill University lecturer Anita Nowak mentors students at Solin Hall residence who are tutoring Syrian refugee students, including Mohamad Alahmad. (Shari Okeke)

After consulting a Syrian Montrealer who works with the Al Salam school for Syrian refugee children in Turkey, the McGill students learned the Syrian students were about to lose their English teacher.

They decided to step in to fill the gap, with one-hour tutoring sessions via Skype.

Inspiring other McGill students

The group has since presented the pilot project to fellow students living at Solin Hall, who were inspired to get involved.

Now the number of tutors has doubled and they're helping eight Syrian students prepare to write the TOEFL exam, which measures ability to use English at the university level.

The Syrian students are hoping to eventually study at Canadian universities.

Since the story first aired on Daybreak, the McGill students and their mentor have received emails from Ontario as well as from London, Australia and South Korea — all from people wanting to get involved in the project.

McGill's education department has also offered to give the tutors tips on teaching English as a second language later this week.

"I've just been heartened by the lovely response from the McGill community and [alumni] and the wider community saying 'good on you' and 'how can we be helpful?'" said Anita Nowak, the mentor overseeing the project. 

More textbooks

When the project started, the Syrian students were sharing one TOEFL textbook and the McGill students hoped to get them access to more.

A German businessman who lives in Prague has now donated a textbook for each Syrian student and has also raised about $700 for the project.

Nowak delivered the good news to Syrian student Mohamad Alahmad via Skype.

"Thanks very much, thanks to you and to him," Alahmad said.

Alahmad hopes to eventually study information technology at McGill.

"Even their students they treat each other in a good way, the people there are good hearted, they help everyone," he said.

The McGill students are encouraged — and somewhat surprised — by the speed of their own progress.

'The sky's the limit'

"This project is a testament to me that you can always find something you can do to help," Tanaka said.

The next step is fundraising to help more Syrian students at Al Salam school.

The McGill students are also thinking about ways they can support Syrian refugees when they start arriving in Montreal.

"Hopefully hosting events in order to send more resources to these students. Beyond that, they sky's the limit," Tanaka said.


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