Schools help refugees put down roots

“They all have a story. But it’s not the tragedy of their lives that’s the point — it’s the resilience they show. They come every day with a smile.”

— Joyce Melamed

By Michelle Hibler

Gebran and Katia Maatouq’s arrival at École élémentaire catholique Montfort in January 2016 made the front pages of Ottawa newspapers. The five- and seven-year-olds were the first of the newly arrived Syrian refugees to attend a school that is part of the Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est. While the Mattouqs had been in town for only a week, registering the children in school had been their priority.

“What fascinates and thrills me,” says principal François Dumont (BEd ’92, MEd ’97), “is their desire to integrate into school as quickly as possible. I haven’t seen that kind of enthusiasm from students starting a chapter of their life in a new setting.”

This school’s warm welcome is being repeated coast to coast. Between November 2015 and May 2016, more than 27,000 Syrian refugees arrived in Canada. Ottawa is now home to close to 1,500, more than half of them children under 14. Canada also provides asylum to 15,000 to 20,000 refugee claimants from other countries every year.

One of the first challenges many new arrivals face is learning English or French. At École Montfort, an Arabic-speaking student teacher helped Gebran settle into his kindergarten class for the first two weeks. A young friend also interpreted for a while.

“But now he prefers that we don’t translate anymore,” says teacher Dominique Lalonde (BEd ’94). “He’s quickly learning French.”

Gebran’s sister Katia, in Grade 2, had attended a French school in Lebanon, where the family sought refuge after fleeing Syria. Now, says Dumont, she wants to develop a local accent, “not the international one from Lebanon. She’s been here only eight weeks and her accent has already changed. She really wants to be just like the others.”

Principal François Dumont and teacher Dominique Lalonde with Gebran and Katia Maatouq in a Montfort classroom.

Pathway into Canadian society

While schools play a key role in helping children integrate into Canadian society, they can also do the same for their older siblings and parents. Ottawa’s Adult High School is a hub for migrants. The only regular Ontario English-language high school entirely for adults, it offers English as a Second Language classes in addition to a comprehensive Grade 10 to 12 program.

“They acquire language at a rapid rate,” says vice-principal Joyce Melamed (BEd ’74). “They’re pretty determined.”

The school has “every single expectation that other high schools have, but our student population is different,” says Peter Campbell (BEd ’85), also vice-principal. “In some cases, the students’ mothers are here too — and their grandmothers.”

Peter Campbell, vice-principal of the Adult High School: “It’s a privilege to be here.”

“We’ve always had refugees, and they come from all over the world,” he says. The 1,200 students who attend the school each semester are drawn from more than 40 countries.

“They come from tragedies, from war-torn countries, devastated countries,” Melamed says. “They’ve left families behind. Families have been killed in front of them.

“They all have a story. But it’s not the tragedy of their lives that’s the point — it’s the resilience they show. They come every day with a smile.”

“Our largest demographic is mothers,” Campbell says. “They’re in their early- and mid-30s. In their home cultures they had to leave school at puberty. But the hopes and dreams they had at 12 didn’t end. Their kids are now in our elementary schools, so they’re free during the day or part of the day to come to school. They’re very motivated, very dedicated.”

Dealing with life every day

The school provides far more than education. The services of a nurse, a drug-addiction counsellor, a social worker and psychologists are available. A multicultural liaison officer visits two or three times a week. The Ottawa Police Service also provides a school resource officer.

“We’re a hub,” Melamed says. “We also try to absorb them into Canadian culture, so we’re constantly doing things that other people take for granted.”  That includes celebrating local holidays like Halloween, complete with candy and costumes.

“We take them skating, snowshoeing, to the theatre — all things they would not have been able to access in their home country or things they’re unfamiliar with.” Melamed has also been known to teach students how to make snow angels in the schoolyard.

Poverty is widespread among the students, so the school offers breakfast every day, as well as pizza and spaghetti lunches, fruit, tinned goods, prepared meals to take home for the weekend and holiday hampers. “We feed them every chance we have,” Melamed says.

The students share a lot with both vice-principals. “We’re there for them and they know that,” Campbell says. That includes taking calls at home, intervening with the police in cases of domestic abuse or visiting hospitals.

“Many of them are here by themselves and have no one to do that for them,” Melamed says. “We’re supposed to be educational leaders, but we’re dealing with life every day.”

Both vice-principals recognize that the students have organized their priorities and their lives to be able to attend school.

“They all place a high value on education and hold teachers in such high regard,” Campbell says. “It’s very rewarding. Every day, it’s a privilege to be here.”

Adult High School Vice-Principal Joyce Melamed with Mehret from Eritrea.

Main photo:
Gebran and Katia Maatouq arrived at École élémentaire catholique Montfort in January 2016. All photos: Andrea Campbell

Support Syrian refugee initiatives
In September, four refugee students will begin a new life at uOttawa thanks to new scholarships that are part of the University’s response to the Syrian crisis. Your donations will help cover their living expenses as they settle in Canada and begin their studies. Please consider giving to the War Refugee Student Scholarship Fund.

From right: Joyce Melamed, vice-principal of Ottawa’s Adult High School, chats with Saja, from Iraq, and Sara, from Egypt.

Back to top