Ottawa

He came as a refugee with no English. Now he's valedictorian

When Even Araya arrived in Canada in 2017, the refugee from Eritrea spoke no English. Now, just three years later, he's sharing his wisdom with his Hawthorne Public School classmates as valedictorian.

Even Araya has a 'unique ability to bring everyone together,' teacher says

Even Araya fled Eritrea on foot with his family more than four years ago and eventually moved to Canada, but didn’t speak any English. Now, the Grade 8 grad is addressing his fellow students as one of his school’s valedictorians. 2:09

Just over four years ago, Even Araya was trudging through the Eritrean desert, his feet cracked and bleeding, carrying his five-year-old brother Simon to neighbouring Sudan. He was just nine.

In 2017, Araya landed in Canada with his family. He didn't speak a word of English.

Now 14, the young refugee has been chosen to speak to other grads as of one Hawthorne Public School's Grade 8 valedictorians.

"It's way better because I used to not be able to speak anything, but now I can talk and read and other stuff, so I feel good," Araya said.

Even Araya says he feels honoured to be among Hawthorne Public School's Grade 8 valedictorians. (Submitted by Even Araya)

Lillie Kennedy was one of Even's first teachers at Hawthorne, through a program called English Language Development (ELD). It's specifically intended for students who come to Canada lacking not only language skills, but also basic classroom experience.

"It's a very challenging time. They've oftentimes not been in a formal school setting and they don't understand the language," Kennedy explained.

I know it's been difficult during this pandemic. But guess what? We've made it this far. And even though we are apart, we're getting through this together.- Even Araya

Araya recalls many firsts upon arriving in Canada that snowy January day, from his first leap into snow to his first day at school, where he sat alone, knowing no one and unable to communicate.

He began making friends through the universal language of sport: first soccer, then cross-country running, where he was so fast he had to compete against older students.

Kennedy said Araya quickly picked up English, along with some Arabic from his many Syrian and Iraqi classmates.

Even Araya, right, with his little brother Simon. (Submitted by Even Araya)

"I've never met a student more driven or more determined to improve. He wasn't just focused on language or math, but also drama and art. He has a unique ability to bring everyone together," Kennedy said.

Araya's Grade 7 and 8 ELD teacher Karen Kelland said he's still the same "open-hearted and enthusiastic" kid as the one who arrived three years ago, but now with more confidence in himself as a leader.

"He is exactly what you would want in a valedictorian. He is popular with everyone, he is kind and well-rounded, he works hard and he's someone that everybody would look up to," Kelland said.

Even Araya fled the violence in Eritrea with his mother and siblings before being reunited with his father in Sudan. The family arrived as refugees in Ottawa in 2017. (Submitted by Even Araya)

Araya said he felt honoured to be chosen to address the class of 2020 — especially since he and other students have struggled with remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I know it's been difficult during this pandemic. Learning online and going into lockdown in our homes and not being able to be with each other. But guess what? We've made it this far. And even though we are apart, we're getting through this together," he told them in his video address, which is being shared with students this week in lieu of an in-person graduation ceremony.

Even Araya, centre, with his younger brother Simon and older sister Feven. (Submitted by Even Araya)

Kelland said that was exactly the message Araya's classmates needed to hear during this turbulent year.

"Our Grade 8s have felt disconnected, and [Even's speech] reminds people of all the amazing things that happened this year, and all the ways that they had fun together," she said.

"This isn't what anyone wanted. People want to be on stage and have a real ceremony. It's got to feel like they've been cheated. I'm really proud of Even and I think it's going to make them laugh and make them feel like they were part of a great year."

Once at Hawthorne Public School, Araya quickly made friends through sports including cross-country running. (Submitted by Even Araya.)

In his address, Araya said he's both nervous and excited to be heading to St. Patrick's High School in the fall —and sad to be leaving Hawthorne behind.

"This place has been my second home for the past three years, and I can say that I will always look at it like that. Teachers and students: you're like my second family. I'm sure our paths will cross again in the future, but for now I will miss you all and I will never forget you or our time together."

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