Adopt-A-School: Helping refugee children overcome the traumas of their past

December 8, 2017

By Gerry Bellett, Vancouver Sun |

“We’ve all been broken before, but we heal. We do have the darkness still, but we have to learn to live without the darkness.” — a handwritten sign pinned to the wall in Guildford Park Secondary.

For many refugee students attending Surrey schools, their bodies may be safely in a classroom, but their minds are still inhabiting the dangerous places they fled.

Surrey likely has the largest population of refugee families of any city in B.C., and the number of refugee children exhibiting signs of trauma led the school district to establish its Expressive Arts program — designed to heal mental anguish — in 13 schools.

A total of 120 refugee children from kindergarten to Grade 12 are presently enrolled in these programs and The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School campaign is being asked for $6,000 to pay for two of them.

“Expressive Arts is for refugee students to work through the emotional turmoil they have experienced. It’s designed to make them more emotionally settled so when they go back to class their minds are ready for learning,” said Surrey school district official Andrea Henriquez.

Most of the children are from Syria, Iraq, Somalia or the Congo, and given what has gone on in those countries some have been exposed to horrors.

The Expressive Arts program at Guildford Park is in a tiny anteroom on the second floor, its walls covered in paintings or messages of hope such as the one above.

Samantha Svensk runs the program here.

“Trauma can manifest in many ways. Some children are hyperactive and not able to focus in class, and some fly under the radar and don’t speak very much,” said Svensk. “It affects their ability to learn and socialize. If a child is unable to express themselves, it puts a stop to life.”

Expressive Arts makes use of painting or toys or plasticine or whatever Svensk can conjure up to unlock the fears that are holding these children hostage.

“Language can be a barrier to communication, but art is helpful because we are all creative and all have imaginations and so we can use these as tools,” she said. “There is safety in the images we create. Maybe the children don’t feel comfortable yet to say this happened to me, but maybe they can create a painting and that object can speak for them, and through that they can express and let go.”

The feeling of safety is a big issue. One day she handed out plasticine and asked students to create a safe space.

“Everyone did something different, but then one of the boys created a house and beside the house there was something that looked like a tank.

“I said ‘What’s that?’ He said ‘That’s war.’ I said ‘What does it mean?’ and he said ‘Not safe.’ I said ‘Okay, show me a safe space’ and he just lifted up the tank and put it over there out of the way.

“This was his house.”

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