School program aims to bridge cultural gaps

In a nation full of immigrants, at one time or another, the Central Alberta Refugee Effort aims to create an understanding among those who immigrated a long time ago and those who are brand new.

In a nation full of immigrants, at one time or another, the Central Alberta Refugee Effort aims to create an understanding among those who immigrated a long time ago and those who are brand new.

Jan Underwood, Central Alberta Refugee Effort public awareness co-ordinator, runs programs and presentations in classrooms and workplaces with the primary goal of bridging cultural gaps.

During a presentation a couple of years ago, a man from Sudan came to Grace Page’s classroom at Joseph Welsh Elementary School to talk about how different being in Canada was.

“He talked about what it was like in the refugee camp where he was raising his children with his wife,” said Page. “They didn’t even have something like a soccer ball. He’d never played with a soccer ball ever.”

One of the students in the classroom quietly got up, grabbed an old soccer ball and asked if he could give the soccer ball to the man. Page suggested the students sign it first. So while the man was speaking the students discretely passed the ball around and signed it. Once it was signed, the students presented the ball to him at the end of the class.

“Jan said, as they were walking down the hallway, that he got a little emotional. He said it was the first soccer ball he had ever owned,” said Page.

“It’s those sorts of encounters and interactions she brings into the classroom.”

The school presentations are designed around bringing a refugee or immigrant to the classroom to talk about human rights, situations in their own country and the process they went through to come to Canada.

“I think it has had tremendous impact with the kids, because they have had the opportunity to meet newcomers to Red Deer and refugees from all over the world,” said Page. “They come right into the classroom and through that initiative, the barriers are brought down.”

On top of the classroom presentations, there are also several CARE (Children who believe in Acceptance, Respect and Equality for all) clubs established in schools throughout the city promoting social justice. Page has run the CARE club at Joseph Welsh for seven years.

“A lot of time we have found, even with adults, not understanding creates discord or misunderstanding,” said Page.

It is also an opportunity for students to ask questions and learn about what the circumstances were like for refugees from places like Sudan or Somalia and why they had to come to Canada.

“I get letters from the teacher and they tell me it has made a difference,” said Underwood. “They can see changes in behaviour in some of the kids, they see more acceptance, more compassion and empathy and those kinds of traits in the kids.”

The benefit for the students is it provides a way for them to interact and learn from different cultures and ethnicities.

“When you have understanding then it’s an awful lot harder to bully or make discriminatory comments when you’ve shaken the hand of a refugee or someone new to the country,” said Page.

Underwood works in classrooms and offices throughout the city in trying to raise intercultural awareness to foster understanding.

She has done presentations at workplaces such as Wal-Mart, Parkland Youth Homes and Olymel.

“The idea is to develop understanding and improve cross-cultural communication,” said Underwood. “Most people agree it’s necessary. Sometimes it’s just understanding a concept.”

One of the concepts taught is the difference between western society’s individualism versus collectivism societies where people are emigrating from.

Having that different perspective can be an advantage, Underwood said, going forward in various workplaces.

Underwood has done about 500 presentations in the Red Deer area, all looking to raise a level of understanding between new and long-standing Canadians.

“I think anything, any way of reaching kids from a very young age that encourages acceptance and respect, basically for everyone, is a good thing,” said Underwood.

mcrawford@bprda.wpengine.com

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