The Current

Syrian refugee children learn to be kids again — in Canada

More than 20,000 Syrian refugees who have come to Canada over the last year are under the age of 18. In schools across the country, teachers share challenges and triumphs with their students. But how do you teach a kid to be a kid again?
Haval and Allan are brothers who fled Syria to live in Egypt for a few years before coming to Canada. They now go to Burnaby South Secondary School. (Elizabeth Hoath/CBC)

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More than 20,000 of the Syrian refugees who have been settled in Canada are under the age of 18.

Integrating these young people is a challenge that schools across the country are facing.

University of Winnipeg professor Jan Stewart has been researching how to best support refugee youth in Canada, particularly the Syrian refugees. She tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti how past trauma affects student life.

"They just really want to be courageous and strong, and they are saying you know there's nothing wrong … with me and I'm fine, this just happened in the past."

Stewart says students share stories of hearing bombs and having nothing and pointing to it as a matter a fact — the way it is in Syria. 

Settlement worker Haval Ahmad works with all kinds of newcomers to schools in Burnaby, B.C. But this year, much of his time has been focused on the influx of Syrian kids and their families. (Elizabeth Hoath/CBC)

Settlement worker Haval Ahmad who works with kids at Burnaby South Secondary School says one of the challenges he faces is teaching kids to be kids. 

"You're only 15, you need to go out and act like a child. You're not an adult," he says of a student.

Ahmad says the first few months arriving as a refugee is "like a honeymoon period for many of the kids."

"But after that, the reality of what they have been through... and what they've left behind starts to sink in... especially for the older boys."

He says students feel a sense of guilt being in Canada knowing they are safe but have family back in Syria.

"They hear about all these family members who are being killed or shot or barrel bombs being dropped on them on a daily basis."
Ali Mahil Altammo is originally from Aleppo, Syria. He is 10 years old and in grade 5 at Carson Grove Elementary School. (Steve Fischer/CBC)

At Carson Grove school in Ottawa, some children have sought counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder to help deal with fleeing from Syria.

School staff say the children have shown remarkable resilience and are moving on with their lives.

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."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Liz Hoath.