Ottawa schools prepare to welcome Syrian refugees

An Ottawa Catholic school says its history of taking in new immigrants makes it well-equipped to take handle incoming Syrian refugee students expected to arrive in the next few weeks.

New students integrating well as schools ready for another wave of children fleeing war

Danial Al-Salameh, 4, with his new friends in his kindergarten class in Ottawa. (CBC)

If there's one lesson four-year-old Danial Al-Salameh has learned since arriving in Ottawa earlier this year, it's that you can't have too many friends.

"Canada have all my friends. I love Canada," he says, surrounded by his junior kindergarten classmates at St. Rose of Lima School in the city's Bayshore neighbourhood.

"I want even more friends," he says with a smile. 

Danial and his family — his parents and a brother — fled the violence in Syria. They were sponsored by a Bells Corners church and arrived in Ottawa in February, joining a growing group of relatives here.

Before coming to Canada Danial Al-Salameh lived with his family in Lebanon after leaving Syria. (Submitted by the Al-Salameh family)

Just three years old at the time, Danial couldn't speak any English. Fast-forward 10 months and he's confidently telling his teachers everything he knows about volcanos.

His quick adjustment makes Joan Barry, the principal at St. Rose of Lima School, smile too.

It's truly humbling when you hear some of their stories. The staff and the students really embrace these students.- Jaon Barry, principal at St. Rose of Lima School

"Every week or two we get a new family joining," Barry says. "It's truly humbling when you hear some of their stories. The staff and the students really embrace these students."

It's still unclear how many more Syrian refugees will be coming to Ottawa — Mayor Jim Watson has said the city could welcome as many as 2,000 — or how many of those will be school-age.

While some teachers have expressed concerns about how to deal with young refugees' complex needs, Barry says her school is well equipped to welcome new students. It's already a popular choice for new families settling in the city's west end.

Students helping students

The Family Welcome Centre for Newcomers, run by the Ottawa Catholic School Board, will be the first stop for many students about to enter the school system.

Joan Barry, principal at St. Rose of Lima School in Ottawa, said the school welcomes a new family every week or two. (CBC)

The centre helps assess language skills and determines whether someone needs to take a course in English.

St. Rose of Lima school has its own resource team ready to step in if new students are having a hard time adapting.

"Sometimes students aren't even aware that some of the things that they've seen are troubling because it has become so commonplace in some of these countries that they've come from," Barry says.

Sometimes the children themselves make the best mentors, she adds. Older students who speak Arabic often help the younger ones by telling them what to expect and guiding them around the school.

"We don't really see any students that are struggling particularly at this school because we have so many new families joining us all the time," says Barry.

"It really is a privilege to able serve these students. It's really a natural part of who were are."

'We want to make them happy'

Another school looking forward to welcoming refugees is Roberta Bondar Public School. One Grade 2 class is already busy colouring cards to welcome their new classmates.

Ottawa school welcomes refugees

7 years ago
Duration 0:49
These Grade 2 kids wrote welcome cards for the refugees who will soon be their classmates.

"The refugees are coming and we want to make them happy," says one student.

Last year the school welcomed Lina, who's now 13. Lina's family left Syria when she was 10, and made their way to Ottawa via the United Arab Emirates. 

She says it was hard to connect with other students when she first started school.

"You don't know a lot of people and it's really cold," she says. "It's just different culture, the way they think, the way they do stuff."

But she wasn't lonely for long.

"It was really easy to make friends and get into the spirit," Lina says.

Liaison program helps students settle in

The Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization runs a liaison program that sees 20 officers fan out across the city to help immigrant students adjust to their new schools.

Each officer oversees students at two to three schools, and the program has been in place since 1991.

Ikram Jama, who manages the liaison program, says her team is ready, but may need more resources if there's a sudden large influx of students.

"The program is 24 years old so the expertise is there, the resources are there. However ... because this group is coming in a short period, we may need to resource the programs more to kind of increase capacity. But other than that we are ready," she told Ottawa Morning host Robyn Bresnahan on Thursday.

Activities important

Dan Martin taught Lina last year and has watched her integrate at the school.

He says it helps to get refugee students involved in activities, like after-school clubs. Martin leads one outdoor club that takes students hiking and camping.

"I was looking around the [campfire] ring and I saw this student from Jamaica and that student from Iraq and this one from Turkey and this one from an East African country and Lina from Syria. It was an extraordinary moment for me to see all these students who had come from different parts of the world taking part in this grand Canadian outdoor adventure," he says.

"I think that more than anything helped with the integration."