A new home a world away

Syrian children adjust to Canada’s culture and school system while making new friends

By Ian Monchesky and Amelia Penney-Crocker


Have you ever wondered what it would be like to move houses, or for those who have, even cities? Well, it’s nothing for those who have come to Canada from Syria, and so far, it’s been a big change. One of the biggest changes has been the weather.

“So far, it’s still cold,” says one of the five Syrian students we met at Oxford School. Rawan Abo Jeesh, Zeyad Abu Nabbout, Mohammad Alrashid, Anas Abo Jeesh, and Habeel Haj Ali all arrived in Halifax in February and are now junior-high students here.

 “The most happy moment for me was coming to Canada and the first day I arrived it was my birthday,” Rawan says. 

The first day they went to school it was cold and wet. They didn’t know the bus systems, so they got a bit lost. “All the houses look the same,” Habeel says. 

And a hard day of school was not over for the children. Habeel is on her third combination lock for her locker. 

The newcomers we talked to had not been in Syria for two years. They were going to a school in Jordan where boys and girls are separated.

Jordan is overwhelmed by the amount of Syrian refugees arriving there. The Canadian government took in 25,000 Syrian refugees, the most in North America.

On top of all that, the trip to Canada took 12 to 16 hours. Imagine sitting in a plane that long! But these newcomers seem happy here.

“I had three wishes in my life,” Habeel says. “To get on an airplane, and I did. To see an ocean, and I did. To come to Canada, and I did.”

As Canadians, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to have all the houses in your neighbourhood be bombed, but it happened to these students in their homes. The students described that whenever they heard the sound of a bomb, they started counting, to find out how far away the bomb was, like how we count when we see lightning before we hear the thunder. They never knew if it was going to hit their house, their neighbour’s house, or their friend’s house.

 “When we arrived in Canada, we felt so secure and happy,” Zeyad says. “We were surprised everything was prepared for us when we arrived. The hotels, the clothes, the residence. After that we moved to a house, we are also getting more information about how to improve our English. Here the buildings are big. There our buildings are all destroyed. Here happiness, there sadness.” 

“It’s pretty much the same as coming from other countries,” says Olga Leiva from the YMCA Immigrant Settlement Program in Halifax. “But the situation they come from makes it different.”

Leiva has been welcoming and working with the new junior high students since February.

“These children are coming from a situation of war,” she says.

Sonja Stuart, an EAL consultant with the Halifax Regional School Board, is helping these students in the classroom, in more than 100 schools, some urban, some rural. “Just because you don’t speak the language doesn’t mean you can’t communicate,” she says. “Technology is helping that. Today, in 2016, that is very different than 20 or 30 years ago.” These students said they work out all their homework into Google Translate. But it is still hard. Learning to write from left to right, and our alphabet is different. A whole new alphabet! Could you do that?

There are 25 teachers helping the students in the HRSB, and 33 schools, so teachers are spread pretty thinly.

“We have schools that never met newcomers in Canada. Some schools received many at once,” Stuart says. 

In our conversation with both the students at Oxford School and the teachers that help them settle in, we asked if there were any differences between the Syrians and the children who have always lived in Canada. “Children all round the world are the same, but in general the Syrian students are stronger in spirit,” says EAL teacher Daina Aleksis says. “As a mother and a grandmother I am looking at my own children and thinking is it really the best way they have it so easy? Kids are kids. You can’t say they are all the same, but they are a wonderful group of kids to work with.”

If you would like to help these newcomers, you could try making them feel welcome to your school, your city, and helping them settle in. You can become a friend to them, just by smiling or waving hello, or you could help them with their work in class. Remember, they come from a different country, so they don’t speak English, so they may not understand what the teacher is saying. But do not think they aren’t learning. They know so much more English than when they first came. One student named Mohammad said once he knows English, he will learn French next!

“Anything that includes others is a very important thing to do,” Stuart says. “Depending on the activity, how do you include everyone in it?”

You can also think of some ideas yourself. Do whatever they like to do or introduce them to something new! But just being a good friend can help as well.   

Editor’s note: Thanks to translator Sura Khorshid for her assistance in our conversation with these students.

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