Return to school a challenging milestone for Syrian refugees

August 27, 2016

By Tara Carman, Vancouver Sun |

For most kids, the start of school evokes some combination of excitement and dread. Anticipation around who the teacher will be, whether friends will be in the same class and how the next 10 months of their lives are going to unfold.

Throw in a tenuous grasp of English, a strange culture in which you are not sure of the ground rules, and an overarching fear of saying or doing the wrong thing — and you’ll have some idea of what it’s like to be refugee students starting their first school year in Canada.

This will be the reality for about 700 Syrian refugee students in B.C. who are now mentally preparing themselves for the new school year. Many had their schooling interrupted, sometimes for years, because they had to flee their homes. A lucky few attended school in the country where they first sought refuge — typically Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey — but many could not because of rules that prevented Syrian students from attending or their families could not afford the fees.

School interrupted

Heveen Kurdi, 16, will start Grade 11 in the fall. She and her siblings — Shergo, 15, Raezan, 10, Ranim, 8 and Sherwan, 1 — arrived in December, a little earlier than most Syrian refugees, who arrived between January and March. The older children entered the school system in Coquitlam shortly after the holiday break. They were placed in a specialized class that provides cultural orientation and English-language instruction for newly arrived immigrants.

For Heveen and Shergo, it was their first time in school in four years. They were in grades 6 and 5, respectively, when fighting forced them to flee their home in Syria. They fled to Turkey, where they were not allowed to attend school because they were Syrian. Shergo worked in a Turkish sweatshop to help the family put food on the table. Heveen taught Raezan and Ranim the little bit of English she knew.

“I teach … alphabet and colours and a little bit of math,” she explained.

While they were in Turkey, two of their cousins and an aunt drowned while attempting to cross the Aegean Sea. A photograph of their dead cousin, three-year-old Alan Kurdi, made their family famous, but the trauma persisted long after the cameras packed up and left. They have family members still in Syria and living as refugees in Turkey. They will start the new school year still grieving for those who have died and worried for those left behind.

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