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How the 1st cohort of Syrian refugees made it through high school in Canada

Marwa Nakhleh’s voice barely registers above a whisper as she recounts the horrors she witnessed on the streets of Damascus.

“It was terrible,” she says of seeing a car bomb go off in her neighbourhood, vividly recalling the darkness that followed. “There’s no electricity, and it’s dark, and people looking for their family and their friends.” Her mother, she says, ran out of the house in a panic, trying to find her.

Guns, bombs and people dying are the scenes she registered as an 11-year-old growing up in Syria’s capital.

Nakhleh is among the first wave of Syrian refugees Canada admitted in 2015-2016 — and she’s among the first students from that group who are now graduating from a Canadian high school.

When the Arab Spring became a nightmare for Syria’s civilians in 2011, and what would become one of the deadliest wars in history broke out, Nakhleh’s parents gathered their four children and headed for the nearest safe place — Lebanon, which was already teeming with refugees.

Nakhleh, 19, says she was unable to continue school in Lebanon, where her family spent four years awaiting resettlement.

Families on the run

As the war in Syria raged and spread, Ammar Jouma’s family cautiously watched and waited at their home in the coastal city of Latakia. In 2012, they too were forced to flee, leaving everything behind.

Their search for safety took them to Turkey, where Jouma’s father was able to find a job. But the days were long and the pay meagre, so Jouma, 12 years old at the time, went to work to help support his family.

“We faced a lot of problems there. We faced a lot of tragedies until we came to Canada — and that was three years ago.”

School plays a pivotal role

As the humanitarian crisis deepened in Syria, Canada agreed to resettle an unprecedented 25,000 refugees, most of them families with children.

At Edmonton’s Queen Elizabeth High School, principal Sue Bell assembled the staff and prepared for the influx. The school already had a large population of immigrant students and was set to accept as many of the Syrians as it could handle.

“I know that whoever walks through our door, we’re going to be welcoming and we’re going to have a place for them to be, and they’re going to love it here,” Bell told CBC News in 2015.

Among the 33 students who walked in the door the following autumn were Nakhleh and Jouma. Both were exhausted from their four-year ordeals as refugees. Neither of them spoke any English.

It fell to the director of the school’s English as a Second Language program, Sherri Ritchie, to help them integrate.

“Learning English, sure,” she says of the challenges facing the students. “But I think the biggest thing is a sense of wellness, a sense of safety, relationship, trust. That’s been the biggest thing.”

Many of the students who came to Canada had missed years of school. Some who arrived in their teens had only an elementary school education. Ritchie says the school had to toss out the rule book when it came to dealing with the students.

Their fears had to be accommodated, and remedial classes were offered. As well, Arabic-speaking students who were already in the system served as mentors, helping to bridge language and cultural barriers.

“We didn’t talk about the bombs, we didn’t talk about the gunshots. We just provided safety and relationships, humour and lots of time and understanding,” Ritchie said.

Some students dropped out, but many others have risen to the challenge.

Nakhleh couldn’t wait to begin school when her family arrived in Edmonton in February 2016. “That’s when I got hope back,” she says.

Dropped into a strange culture with a new language, she pushed forward with her academic studies while also volunteering in the community and working part-time.

Jouma says he struggled at first. Even though he was unhappy in Turkey, he didn’t relish the thought of another move, learning a new language and leaving his friends behind.

“If you saw me the first day I came to school you will say this guy will never, never, never get out of here or get his diploma. When I took ESL Level 1, English Level 1, I was really confused about what’s going on.”

Of the 33 Syrian refugee children who began at Queen Elizabeth High School in 2015-16, Nakhleh and Jouma are among the 11 who crossed the stage Thursday to receive their Grade 12 diplomas.

Big hopes for the future

Now that she has graduated, Nakhleh intends to use her refugee experience to help others facing a similar fate.

“When you’ve been in a war and you’ve seen a lot of bad stuff, you have lots of feelings and you don’t know what to do, especially when you go to another country way different from yours,” she says.

Jouma plans to follow in his family’s maritime tradition. Recalling his grandfather’s stories of adventures on the seas, he wants to attend a marine school in Vancouver.

“I love oceans, even though we don’t have oceans in Edmonton. But one day I will work there. This is my dream — to become a captain for a big ship. A really big ship.”

He will also get his Canadian citizenship in a few months.

Both students say they still love and miss Syria. But they say it is not safe to go back. Canada is now their home.


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