By: Lexi Wright
You've been abroad. As you make your way through the airport, one of the first signs you see is "Welcome Home". It’s always good to be home--back in Canada.
Imagine the significance of seeing that same sign if you are a new Canadian. This is your new home--a new life. The emotions run high...hopes and dreams, excitement, fear of the unknown, a sense of loss of family and friends back home, freedom, better times.
Same sign, totally different experiences.
Once you start to settle into your new home, you see the new opportunities as well as the challenges it brings. Learning a new language, customs and way of life. Recognizing the hopes and dreams for your family that come with a fresh start.
People from all over the world now call Red Deer home. Many of these people have traveled from violence and terror to a realm of safety that they can now comfortably embrace. These new Canadians also make up the beautiful diversity that is present within our neighborhood communities, although adjusting to life in Canada has not always been an easy task.
Going to school also becomes a new experience for children. Families recognize that education is a key to future success, and education is very important. Students come with a wide range of backgrounds, some never attending schools some with very limited language abilities
Qabas Al Sammarraie, an Educational Assistant for English Second Language (ESL) at West Park Elementary School, knows first-hand what it can be like for an immigrant or refugee student coming to Canada and attending school for the first time.
“School was a jungle back home in Iraq. The teachers got paid so little, so once they were done work, that was that. There were no after-school programs or anything. We didn’t have art, we didn’t have gym, there were hardly any windows and huge walls. Here in Red Deer, I have students asking me ‘why are the walls different colors?’ because they’re just not used to how bright and colorful a school can be”.
Qabas is originally from Iraq and landed in Canada as a refugee after fleeing the Iraq war in 2005. After a series of medical examinations, a criminal record check, and ten interviews with the Canadian embassy, Qabas was told his family had been accepted into Canada.
“When we were told we were going to be moving to Calgary, I did all the Googling one person could do on Calgary. When we got to Calgary though, we were told we were actually going to Red Deer and I was so confused. I had no idea where Red Deer was. Everything about Canada was new to me. I didn’t know how cold it was going to be until we stepped off the airplane. It was brutal too be honest, I just had no idea. I mean, even Canadians complain about the snow, let alone someone who had never seen it before”, says Qabas.
Qabas says his biggest fears coming to Canada were racism and whether or not he would feel accepted in the community, but all of his preconceived notions changed when he stepped off of the airplane and landed on Canadian soil.
“There were some volunteer greeters with big cowboy hats on, waving at and greeting the refugees as they stepped into the terminal. I was obviously a different colour from most people so I was totally skeptical about whether it was going to be safe for me here in Canada. The people at the airport changed my initial thoughts about Canada almost immediately. I assumed people were going to be mad or taken aback by the way my family was dressed, or something just as trivial. I was completely wrong”, says Qabas.
Qabas is extremely passionate about his work as an Educational Assistant and is grateful for the opportunity to work directly with students who have been through the same experiences as his own.
“I can communicate with the students on a professional level as their teacher, but also on a personal level because I know exactly what they’re going through. I put myself in their shoes and I give them my complete empathy. When I first came to Canada, I didn’t have anybody who could speak Arabic to me, except for my family. You feel tired and frustrated, like you don’t have enough people to talk too but anybody would have the same problems if they were placed in a totally different society and had to re-learn the language. Coming from a war environment in itself is traumatizing enough, so we’re also dealing with students who are going through psychological trauma”.
Linda Holden is another teacher who understands the challenges with being a refugee. Linda has taught for a total of 35 years, the last two of those years teaching ESL at Fairview Elementary School. She also works directly with refugee students and can recount a number of memorable anecdotes.
“I remember distinctly this one time during parent teacher interviews. I had a little boy and he was sitting across from his mom, dad, and his Arabic interpreter. I had the interpreter tell the boy’s parents that their son wasn’t listening very well in class, but then the boy just burst into tears. I was so in awe of his father at that moment, because his father didn’t reprimand the boy, all he did was take the boy’s hand and kiss it ever so gently. Then he told his son ‘I am papa, this is mama’, pointing to his wife. “At school” he pointed to me, “she is mama and she is papa and you must listen to her”. It turned the boy completely around and every day since, he would tell me what a great listener he had become. It was so beautiful. A lot of parents don’t know how to deal with these kinds of things, but this boy’s father was so understanding and patient”, says Linda.
"Parent teacher interviews are always so amazing with ESL parents because all they dream about, all they want, is to see their child succeed in Canada, to see that their children are going to grow and be nourished and safe. One father told me, ‘I’ll give you my right eye if you teach my son’ and I simply told him ‘you can keep your right eye, I will still teach him’, but the parents love their children to the moon and back. They just want to see their children do well in Canada. That is their biggest desire”.
One particularly touching moment for Linda was the day when a group of Syrian refugees arrived for their first day of school at Fairview.
“The students came to our school early in the morning. It was March and it was a warmer winter day, but they were covered head-to-toe in snow gear. Hats, mittens, snow pants, everything. Then, over the intercom we started to play ‘Oh Canada’, and a staff member told the students to stand. Immediately all these students stood up and turned towards the Canadian flag. Here they are in a new country for the first time and they’re already so curious about our anthem. The principal too, was crying, it was just beautiful to see".
A foundation of public school education is that we welcome all students. In 2016, Red Deer Public Schools welcomed students from 24 different countries including Afghanistan, Nepal, Somalia, Syria, Eritrea, Mexico and many more.
Red Deer saw an an influx of Syrian refugees in the last two years according to Serge Jette, Director of International Services with Red Deer Public Schools
“We had over 100 Syrian refugees in the past two and a half years. This year the District also attracted 107 international students who come to Red Deer for the school year as tuition paying students and get a Canadian education, which makes-up another component of our school diversity”.
Gaylene Mackay is an ESL teacher and curriculum leader at Lindsay Thurber High School whose role involves teaching the ESL classes, but also doing intake with new students and getting them registered for classes.
“When I first started teaching ESL 14 years ago, it wouldn't have been uncommon to have a class of ten kids. This past year, I had one class of 30 and one class of 27. We've always had students that have come with limited education or limited English, but with the rise of refugees, we have more of those students. It's not just about teaching them English for school anymore, it's about teaching them English for life", says Gaylene.
Being an ESL teacher is a particularly rewarding job, especially seeing the growth and success of ESL students, but as with any other job, it does come with some challenges.
“High School students who arrive with no previous education or classroom experience at all, face the possibility that they may well not graduate. With these students, my job then becomes teaching them as much life experience as possible. My job becomes making them feel like they will succeed, because I know deep down that they will".
Central Alberta Refugee Effort (C.A.R.E), offers a variety of immigrant and refugee services beginning with the initial resettlement of government sponsored refugees, as well as formal ESL language training classes. Unique to C.A.R.E are also community connections programs, which help match newcomers with established Canadians to build friendships and programs to help employers be more understanding and successful in hiring immigrants.
Frank Bauer, Executive Director of C.A.R.E. has a mission to help break the stigmas surrounding refugees and help them acclimatize to Canada.
“One of the myths going around is that refugees don't have any education, but we have seen very successful and highly educated refugees with careers ranging from civil engineers to businessmen to doctors. People who move to another country are making a huge step and these people are eager to be successful again, so they will go to English classes in the morning then go to their full time jobs in the afternoon, or maybe even two jobs. These people put in a lot of energy into being successful, and helping their kids be successful as well", says Frank.
Over the course of his career, Frank has witnessed the growth and acceptance of refugees in Red Deer.
“When the Syrian influx occurred, I noticed we actually had more support. We have had over 110 new volunteers and 4,600 hours of client service, which is 76% increase from 2015.
It can be easy in such a multicultural country like Canada, to take diversity for granted. Diversity is the air we breathe and the life we live. Red Deer has come a long way and although there is always work to be done, Red Deer has become more than a home for so many individuals.
“You can see the whole world from Red Deer’, says Frank. “In the end, we are all Canadians and regardless of if you are a refugee or not, we will accept you. You will be welcomed here”.