Syrian Refugees in Surrey transition from conflict to the classroom

March 2, 2016

By Wendy Stueck, Globe and Mail |

At the back of a classroom in a low-rise Surrey office complex, Nada Alkhamis, 13, is learning to write her name in English.

Her 15-year-old brother, Abdulrahman, is beside her, using coloured markers to decorate his carefully written name on a sheet of paper that will go into his binder at Surrey’s English Language Learner Welcome Centre. It is the siblings’ first day at the centre. Surrey teacher Audrey Nolte likes to keep those early drawings so students can look at them in a couple of months to see how far they have come.

“As soon as you put them in a normal classroom setting where other kids are doing regular work, they follow along,” Ms. Nolte said.

The welcome centre is a key piece of community infrastructure designed to help children such as Nada and Abdulrahman – both government-assisted refugees from Syria – move from lives marred by uncertainty and conflict to a classroom routine.

The centre is particularly important in Surrey, which to date is the top destination for government-assisted Syrian refugees in British Columbia, including the largest number of school-aged children. The school district has 67 to date, compared with fewer than a dozen in Vancouver.

The Liberal government recently reached its goal – announced in last year’s federal election campaign – of bringing 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada, and has said another 15,000 applications are complete or under way.

In British Columbia, 1,522 government-assisted Syrian refugees had arrived as of Feb. 29, says Chris Friesen, director of settlement services with the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. Another 2,000 or so are expected by the end of 2016.

On arrival, refugees are placed in temporary housing, including hotels, in Metro Vancouver. To date, settlement agencies have also been trying to line up permanent accommodation. As of Feb. 29, Surrey was the top destination, with 283 people (who make up 65 families) finding homes or apartments in the city.

Surrey is the No. 1 settlement spot even though it has limited room in its schools, Mr. Friesen said.

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