New Brunswick

Syrian youth in New Brunswick cities struggle to make friends

Research suggests foreign students in Canadian cities have a lot of resources available to them but they still feel left out.

Research suggests integration starts with individual, focused approach

Foreign students in Canadian cities have a lot of resources available to them, including English classes and settlement and counselling services, but they still feel left out. (Viola Pruss/CBC)

Making friends is not easy for Khawla Al Dandan.

The 16-year-old Syrian girl arrived in Fredericton as a refugee last January.

Meeting people that first winter at Fredericton High School was difficult, she said.

She did not speak English and had missed two years of school because of the war at home.

But even after her language skills improved, cultural barriers have remained. Nobody is mean to her, Khawla said. She just thinks the other youth don't understand her culture.

"I think [the Canadian youth] don't want to talk to us because they saw us like strange people and because, I think, the hijab," she said, referring to the traditional head covering Muslim women wear in public.

"It is difficult but I have a friend from China and other countries."

Integration is difficult for many youth

Khawla struggles with parts of Canadian life. Seeing boys and girls kissing in school is strange, she said.

"We try to understand your culture but there are some things, different traditions," she said.

Research suggests that she is not alone.

Stacey Wilson-Forsberg, an associate professor of human rights and human diversity at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, said integration is not as easy as putting newcomers into schools and expecting them to fit in.

She said many youth, especially in the larger cities, struggle integrating and making friends.

Stacey Wilson-Forsberg, an associate professor of human rights and human diversity at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, said integration is not as easy as putting newcomers into schools and expecting them to fit in. (Wilfred Laurier University)

In a 2009 research project in New Brunswick, Wilson-Forsberg studied immigrant youth in Fredericton and Florenceville-Bristol.

The group in Fredericton mostly consisted of Asian and African children, and the Florenceville-Bristol youth were the children of Colombian workers hired by McCain Foods.

Wilson-Forsberg said the youth in the smaller town flourished, while the city kids struggled with everything from language issues to racism.

"A lot of bullying and name-calling and the teachers just not knowing what to do about it," she said.

Youth integrate faster in smaller communities

Wilson-Forsberg said several factors played into the different experiences.

Residents of the smaller community saw the benefit the newcomers brought. Most people worked together at McCain Foods and pulled together to welcome the immigrants.

Fredericton native Stacey Wilson-Forsberg talks about her research on the experience of newcomers in Florenceville-Bristol and Fredericton. 8:37

And people were constantly meeting, she said.

"It was such a small place that they had no choice but to run into each other," Wilson-Forsberg said. "And also the parents would know each other.

"But the big, big finding for Florenceville was just the schools were amazing."

Integration often starts in schools

Wilson-Forsberg said that unlike the immigrant youth in Fredericton, the Colombian students had no access to classes in English as a second language or to settlement services.

Instead, teachers took it upon themselves to look after them, and encouraged the students to join clubs. This forced them to make friends with Canadian youth.

That kind of personal integration happened less in the bigger cities, Wilson-Forsberg said.

In Fredericton, the immigrant youth had access to English classes but these services also separated them from their peers for much of the day.

And they often lacked the personal attention the other youth experienced.

The schools in the city are larger, and many of the teachers don't have the time to look after each student individually, said Wilson-Forsberg.

In total, 1554 Syrians, 400 of them children, arrived in the province since December 2015. The majority landed in Fredericton, Moncton and Saint John. (Shane Fowler/CBC) (Shane Fowler/CBC)

"I think people were being so polite so as not to put a big spotlight on the youth, that perhaps they were not taking enough initiative to really integrate them into the community," she said.

She added that the refugees in Fredericton were quite poor and often lacked the means to go to activities and events outside of school.

And in bigger communities, newcomers may be less likely to bump into Canadians their age outside of school, she said.

"You just can't throw a bunch of kids together in a classroom, whether it's in high school or university, with international students and expect them to get to know each other," she said.

"You have to be really intentional about it."

Youth move from Chipman to Fredericton

Same Al Rafie has experienced the differences between country and city life in New Brunswick.

The 11-year-old spent his first months in Canada living in Chipman, with his parents, two brothers and a sister. But the community was too small for his parents, so the family moved to Fredericton.

Thanks to major news coverage of the war in Syria, many Canadians have taken to volunteering with the Syrian families, which exposes them much faster to the language and culture. (Shane Fowler/CBC) (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Same said as the only young refugees in Chipman, he and his siblings made fast friends with other Canadian kids. Their English improved so much that their parents have now put them in a French school in Fredericton.

The adjustment has been difficult, Same said. Lessons in school are hard to follow because of the language barrier, and Same has opted to make friends with the other Syrian kids in Fredericton instead of getting to know Canadians.

"We were not excited to move to Fredericton, because we stayed [in Chipman] for a long time with our friends," he said.

Fredericton schools, residents make effort to integrate newcomers

There is a bright site to this, though.

As enrolment of Syrian students continued to rise throughout 2016, the Anglophone West School District in Fredericton opened its first welcome centre in September, at George Street Middle School.

Since January, the district has registered about 250 new international students, 200 of them from Syria.

In total, 1554 Syrians, 400 of them children, arrived in the province since December 2015. The majority landed in Fredericton, Moncton and Saint John, with just over 100 living in smaller communities.

The welcome centre is meant as a meeting point for international parents and students to discuss their schooling needs and potential issues at school.

In a previous interview with CBC News, David McTimoney, the district superintendent, said the district also wants to hire more teachers to deal with growing class sizes and to focus more on English as a second language.

There is also a private tutoring group run by the Multicultural Association that helps the students in school, and tries to get them involved in activities and student jobs that exposes them to Canadian youth.

And thanks to major news coverage of the war in Syria, many Canadians have also taken to volunteering with the Syrian families, which exposes them much faster to the language and culture, said Wilson-Forsberg,

She said that any efforts to integrate the youth more quickly will benefit not only the children, but the larger community.

"They are the next generation and they are going to be the future labour force," she said. "So we definitely have to pay attention to them and make sure that they can succeed in school and go to university."

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