Learning the language of the land will be essential for the new Syrian families who are now calling Red Deer home.
It will be a long road ahead as many have limited education and in some cases some have never stepped inside a school, let alone one that does not teach in Arabic. Others have lived in refugee camps for an extended period of time where schooling took a backseat to survival.
The Central Alberta Refugee Effort (CARE) is currently squeezing in Syrian adults into their 13 daytime and five part-time ESL classes. Staff will have conducted 50 English language assessments by the end of March.
Two additional English As A Second Language (ESL) daytime classes are expected to be added by April 1.
“Overall what we are finding is their education level is quite low,” said Frank Bauer, CARE executive director. “Some of them have not completed the equivalent of high school in their own language and have very low English. They are able to say, ‘Hello, how are you?’”
Bauer said this has been a challenge because staff did not know this upfront. He said it makes sense because the Canadian government was looking to help the most vulnerable refugees.
“ESL is a very basic need,” said Bauer. “There is no question about that. Without English language skills there is nothing you can really do.”
He is confident the federal government will come through with funding for the additional classes.
In the Red Deer Public School District, some 64 school-aged children have been enrolled in a handful of schools. Some are in regular classes in neighbourhood schools while others are in congregated ESL classes. Some have come with limited English and others are starting at square one.
Vanessa Yamazaki, the English Second Language District co-ordinator, said it will always be a challenge when there are new students in a classroom.
“You just get to know them, get to know their needs and what you need to do to support them to be successful,” said Yamazaki. “They seem to be really enjoying their time here. They have smiles on their face. They are trying their best to learn English and communicate with everybody. They seem to be very happy and adjusting very well.”
As with Red Deer, the student body has become more diverse over the years to include students with refugee status or simply new immigrants so it is not unusual to have students from other countries in the district.
The students started at the schools after the winter break and after the enrollment numbers are required by the province for funding.
Red Deer Public Schools has taken on the vast majority of the Syrian students. It has come with an estimated $250,000 price tag costs and the cost is expected to rise.
Bruce Buruma, the district’s Director of Community Relations, said the district has hired two full-time equivalent (FTE) teachers and one FTE education assistant to handle the new students.
“One of the challenges that we face as a district is that there has been no funding for this,” said Buruma. “When you are bringing in 64 children into our schools that is pretty significant … Our teachers have been remarkable. It’s not an easy thing. Our teachers and families have been really welcoming but it does create the challenge because we don’t have the funding to support.”
The district is starting to see some students who have special needs. One child has Down Syndrome and another has autism, said Buruma.
“They are children who will require those additional supports,” said Buruma. “We’re ready and welcoming of doing that. We are glad Canada is welcoming all of kinds of children with all different needs. We are responding as best as we can. Sometimes it is a little bit taxing and challenging but we are doing the best we can. It would just be nice to have some support to meet those unique needs of some of those children.”
Education falls under the provincial mandate while welcoming the refugees from Syria is a federal initiative. The district has not received extra funding from either order of government. School boards receive grants based on enrollment numbers as of Sept. 30 every year.
“Now when these children come to us in September and they are part of our enrollment they will be funded well but in the interim, for more than half the year, there isn’t any funding for these kids,” said Buruma. “There was a hope funding would follow these kids. Canada has really opened its doors for that. Families come whether they are a refugee or an immigrant because they have hopes and dreams for their kids. What is common is these kids need a good education.”
The district receives translation support from CARE when meeting with families and students. It has a few staff members who speak Arabic.