Syrian children find comfort in numbers at Ottawa elementary school

Starting at a new school can be hard, especially when the child comes from a different culture and speaks a different language. But at one Ottawa school, recent refugees from Syria are finding comfort in numbers.

110 of the 288 students at Carson Grove are recent refugees from Syria

Of the 288 students at Carson Grove Elementary School in Gloucester, 110 are recent refugees whose families fled Syria's civil war. (Steve Fischer/CBC)

When teachers at Carson Grove Elementary School in Ottawa call out the name "Mohammad," dozens of heads turn.

About 40 boys named Mohammad — or a variation of that spelling — now attend classes at the Gloucester school. Most are recent Syrian refugees. In fact, of a total school population of 288, 110 of the kids came to Canada from Syria.

Most arrived in the past year, part of the initial wave of nearly 2,000 Syrian refugees who came to Ottawa under the federal government's resettlement program.

Like so many of her students, Carson Grove's vice-principal, Maha Albari, is also originally from Syria. And like so many, she's new to the school.
Samiha Almaslmani, 8, arrived in Ottawa with her family in February. (Steve Fischer)

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board transferred the fluent Arabic-speaker to Carson Grove with a mission to help the kids from Syria — and their parents — adjust to their new environment as smoothly as possible.

"With the Syrians, they come from a country where it was 94 per cent educated people, everything, all the education was for free. Schools and universities. So yes they come and they are hoping their children will get the education they were hoping to get in their own country" Albari said.

Some attending school for 1st time

Many of the families whose children now attend Carson Grove fled Syria not long after the civil war there started in 2011, then lived in refugee camps until coming to Canada. For many of these kids, it's their first time setting foot in a classroom.

They don't want to miss a day of school, so they are happy to come.- Maha Albari, vice-principal

"They don't want to miss a day of school, so they are happy to come. When they are sick, they cry at home and the parents would call me and tell me, 'He's very sick, he shouldn't be in school but I have to bring him,'" Albari said.

Because of that attitude, Albari said, most of the students are excelling academically.
Maha Albari is vice-principal at Carson Grove Elementary School, and is also originally from Syria. (Steve Fischer/CBC)

Eight-year-old Samiha Almaslani arrived in Ottawa with her family in February. At the time, she spoke only a few words of English. She said she couldn't be happier at her new school "because everyone help me write and I have my friends."

Ali Mahil Altammo, 10, fled Aleppo with his family, escaping first to Turkey where he said people did not treat them well. But he doesn't want to talk about that: he'd rather discuss his linguistic skills.

"When I come from Syria to Turkey I speak three language: Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish, and come to Canada I speak English and French almost," the Grade 5 student boasted. 

Trauma counselling offered

While many of the new students at Carson Grove are thriving, invisible scars remain. Some have sought counselling for post-traumatic stress disorder to help deal with their experiences fleeing Syria, but staff at the school say the children have shown remarkable resilience and are moving on with their lives.
Ali Mahil Altammo, 10, is originally from Aleppo, and is now in Grade 5 at Carson Grove. (Steve Fischer/CBC)

To help put the children at ease, teachers at Carson Grove never discourage their students from speaking in Arabic to one another.

"We want them to progress and succeed and to speak their language, because we are not here to take their language away, Albari said. "So they speak between each other in Arabic, and sometimes you see them how they are switching to English."

We are not here to take their language away.- Maha Albari, vice-principal

​As for how to deal with all those Mohammads, teachers at Carson Grove have adopted the same practical system used by schools with multiple Liams, Owens and Matthews: they tack on the first letter of the student's surname, so every child knows when it's their turn to stand out from the crowd.