Since the tragic photos of Ahmed Kurdi appeared in Canadian newspapers and on TV screens last August, the plight of asylum seekers from Syria, the Horn of Africa and other parts of Africa and the Middle East has mobilized and energized communities across Canada. This has led to an outpouring of support for private, blended visa and government-funded refugee sponsorship. Canada, and Ontario specifically, have reached out to bring scores of families – many of whom include young children – to live in our communities. Teachers and education workers have spent hours outside of their classrooms working toward sponsoring families. In many communities, students have been learning about the refugee experience by examining the issues surrounding asylum-seekers, fundraising for emergency relief or participating in the sponsorship process themselves.
My classroom at Rose Avenue Public School, like most of our school, has students from all over the world. I like to think that many of my students’ experiences are reflective of other immigrant and refugee student experiences. Children frequently make reference to the reasons their families chose to come to Canada (education, job opportunities) or were forced to make the difficult decision to leave their homes (war, terrorism). My current Grade 4 students rarely differentiate between refugees and immigrants, all citing a need for people in their communities to seek better lives. While students make connections to the articles and stories we’ve read about refugees, refugee experiences seem to be limited to “over there” in the camps and on crowded boats; once the students come to Canada, they are all “New Canadians” at our school, regardless of status.
When refugees are fleeing their homes, after food and shelter are taken care of, one of the next things the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) does is set up schools. Education is universally acknowledged as one of the most pressing needs for children experiencing transition. Education is grounding and normalizes the refugee experience, providing much-needed routine to an otherwise uncertain existence.
Similarly, during the refugee settlement process, one of the arrangements that must be made immediately is to settle school-aged children into schools.
As frontline workers, teachers are often the first people – outside of immediate family – to be in daily contact with some of the most vulnerable members of newcomer communities. Along with social workers, settlement workers and counselors, teachers play a key role in helping students adjust to life in a new country. Our role in helping build up these often resilient children is critical; schools provide a safe place of learning and routines that will lead to building a solid sense of identity and belonging in children.
Trauma and Elementary School-Aged Children