Syrian families in Toronto eager for start of school year

Thousands of Syrian children will start at Greater Toronto Area schools this week. CBC News spoke to six about their hopes and expectations for the school year and the challenges of fitting in.

After years of sporadic classes as their families fled war, refugee students ready to regain future

After years of sporadic classes as their families fled war, Syrian refugee students are ready to regain their futures by making friends and studying. 1:01

In Syria, the Lazakani children studied at a walled-in school, where guards looked after the students and made sure they didn't sneak away from their classes.

But everything changed when the war came to the northwestern city of Idlib. Some days, the Lazakanis couldn't go to class because of bombings. Sometimes they went, only to find there were no teachers. Eventually, the school was converted into an emergency shelter for people displaced by the violence.

Khaled Lazakani and his wife, Iman Malandi, realized the situation wasn't safe for their three children and fled Syria, making their way to Turkey, then Jordan, Egypt and finally Lebanon. Mohamed, Nour and Islam, who should have been enjoying elementary school, took classes where they could on the journey, but often settled for lessons taught in languages they didn't understand.

Islam, the family's youngest daughter, said she started worrying as she struggled to read and write. Her brother, Mohamad, said it felt like his brain was getting lazy.

Finally, last February, the Lazakanis touched down in Toronto. Within a week, all three kids were back in school. And they all know exactly why they're there.

"I want to regain my future," said Islam, who will start Grade 8 this year. "I'm so excited to go to school again."

The Lazakanis are among the many Syrian children heading back to school across the city this week.

Mario Calla, the executive director at COSTI, which has settlement workers supporting thousands of government-assisted refugee families, said most parents have two main concerns:

  • How their children will settle into their new environment.
  • Figuring out basics like where to get school supplies and how to get kids to class safely.

The kids also face some pressure when it comes to learning about a new culture while learning the dos and don'ts of high school life.

But while Canadian students may dread the start of the school year, these Syrian children welcome it.

Big dreams, but setbacks too

Muhammed Muhammed, 16, has been undergoing cancer treatment since arriving in Toronto. (John Rieti/CBC)

Masoud Muhammed sits on his living room couch with his three children all in arms' reach. Above them, a Canadian flag pinned to the wall is the most prominent decoration in their high-rise apartment.

Speaking through an Arabic interpreter, Muhammed said his three children are realizing that they'll need to be more educated than him if they're going to succeed in this country.

The problem for one of their sons has been making it to class.

Muhammed Muhammed, 16, was diagnosed with lymphoma after arriving in Canada and has spent much of his first months in this country receiving chemotherapy. When school starts, he'll still miss most Mondays for treatment, but he says he's feeling better and wants to get back in the classroom, even if it's just an hour or two at a time.

Muhammed, also speaking through a translator, said getting back to studying was a "beautiful" feeling. He added he doesn't yet have the words to express his gratitude to this country for accepting him.

He does speak enough English to describe his time in Turkey, where he didn't attend class. "So boring," he said, delivering the line in perfect teenage cadence.

Instead of studying, Muhammed learned to cut hair to help provide for his family. He still cuts his father's hair in Toronto, but now wants to learn enough computer programming to become a video game designer.

Hela Muhammed, who is going into Grade 9, said she eventually wants to work for the federal government where she hopes to be able to help the situation in Syria. For her first job, she'd like to work at the library, where she already spends many hours each week.

The only Muhammed kid who wasn't as eager to get back to school is the youngest boy, Diyar. Heading into Grade 4, he's still wondering why Canadian school days are so long.

Parents also studying

Iman Malandi, right, and her husband Khaled Lazakani say they expect their children to make the most of the opportunity to study in Canada. (John Rieti/CBC)

Islam Lazakani and her brothers aren't the only ones going back to school in their household. Parents Khaled and Iman — a pharmacist and a beautician in Syria, respectively -- are also taking language lessons.

"I love to learn," Iman said, adding she'd eventually like to study political science.

"I want to go to university also to complete my studies. So this is my aim, for me and my kids."

Khaled said he may have to consider a different career, and admits his children's future may be brighter than his at this point. In Canada, he said, the door appears open wider for them.

Masoud Muhammed and his wife, Shireen Ali, are also planning to go back to school once their son recovers. This September, only Masoud will have enough time for language training.

Masoud said he has no concerns whatsoever about sending his kids to Canadian schools. As far as he's concerned, he said, his kids go to the best school in the world right now.

The Lazakanis have a few more reservations.

"Maybe I'm nervous about my culture … you know, to keep our culture," Iman said.

Iman doesn't think her children will need to hide their Muslim faith or their background at school. She just wants them to keep their manners.

'I want to make improvement in my life after two years, three years not studying after I left Syria … I have the opportunity here,' said Mohamad Lazakani. (John Rieti/CBC)

Ask any of the six children about fitting in, and you can see the wheels turning in their heads, especially with the teenagers who are more aware of the social minefield of high school.

"I wanna adapt to the Canadian culture, to Canadian people, you know?" said Mohamad Lazakani, now 17 and the most outspoken of his siblings.

He's hoping his hobbies — swimming, music and breakdancing — will help lead to some friendships.

Muhammed and Diyar Muhammed also like music, though they still know Kurdish hip-hop better than Drake.

Islam said she made a lot of friends when she first arrived at school, but that some later turned a little frosty. She's not sure why.

"Maybe making friends is a little bit hard," she said, before adding that this doesn't bother her.

"If they like me, I will like them. But if not, I don't care."

Hela Muhammed said she uses her background to her advantage when it comes to making friends. One of her icebreakers is writing their names in Arabic.

Dressed in a denim jacket, she also stays on top the latest fashion trends — another key to high school success. Hela's family will get most of its back-to-school needs from donations this year, though she's still hoping her dad will be able to afford a pair of Converse sneakers for her to wear on her first day back.

The Muhammed family, from left: Muhammed, father Masoud, mom Shireen, Hela and Diyar. (John Rieti/CBC)