Feature

Welcoming Syrian Refugees

Shannon Gamble

Four years of war in Syria have driven millions of people out of the country, seeking refuge anywhere possible. Families with young children walk for days or weeks to reach neighboring borders, only to be turned away or placed in camps. Thousands pay smugglers for transport on un-seaworthy boats, willing to risk unpredictable seas for their freedom. Once the devastating photos of the young Alan Kurdi were brought to the media’s attention, Western countries took notice and their response was quick.

Like many, when we first heard about the Syrian refugee crisis, my fellow teacher Sierra Gamble Beaton and I knew that we wanted to help. Ottawa’s intake of Syrian refugees is projected at over 1,500 people with an estimated 50 percent being children. As teachers we were anxious to help Syrian children transition into our city.

This current refugee crisis presented a need for action and we felt that it was our turn to answer the call at the school and community level.

Sierra and I decided that organizing a toy drive at each of our schools would allow community members to contribute to families in a tangible way. We brought the idea to Refugee 613, the Ottawa organization that is coordinating the city and community response to this crisis. They welcomed our initiative and gave us the go-ahead with the toy drives. Our next step was to bring the staff at Westwind Public School (Stittsville) and Sir Winston Public School (Nepean) on board. For a 3-month period, we collected new and used toys to give to incoming refugee children from Syria. Our parent communities were keen to support refugees but hadn’t been sure how. This project provided them with the opportunity to help. The students were directly involved. They sorted and selected toys. It was a thought-provoking learning experience.

This current refugee crisis presented a need for action and we felt that it was our turn to answer the call at the school and community level.

Sierra and I decided that organizing a toy drive at each of our schools would allow community members to contribute to families in a tangible way. We brought the idea to Refugee 613, the Ottawa organization that is coordinating the city and community response to this crisis. They welcomed our initiative and gave us the go-ahead with the toy drives. Our next step was to bring the staff at Westwind Public School (Stittsville) and Sir Winston Public School (Nepean) on board. For a 3-month period, we collected new and used toys to give to incoming refugee children from Syria. Our parent communities were keen to support refugees but hadn’t been sure how. This project provided them with the opportunity to help. The students were directly involved. They sorted and selected toys. It was a thought-provoking learning experience.

This toy drive provided us with many teaching opportunities. Teachers were able to discuss the challenges refugee families face and the courage families demonstrate in coming to Canada. Students learned about “needs” versus “wants” and about the importance of giving back locally and to the global community.

The topic allowed for lessons at every level. In my Kindergarten class, we talked about empathy, compassion and acceptance. We discussed how refugee children might feel about leaving their homes and belongings and moving somewhere new. Students questioned why children would leave their country of origin, which led to a discussion about safety and security.

At Westwind Public School, students in Nancy Nadeau’s grade 4 class selected the Syrian refugee crisis as part of their School Learning Plan (SLP) focus for the year. The SLP statement is: “If we model critical thinking through a variety of strategies such as accountable talk, rich read-alouds, images and debates then our students might question and evaluate the world around them in a meaningful manner.” Nadeau asked her students questions such as: What would be the reasons for a refugee to come to Canada? What are the differences between a refugee and an immigrant? What is the largest refugee population in Canada? How can you support refugee children who come to your school? These open-ended questions led to rewarding discussions and opportunities for many writing projects.

Jason Whiting, a grade 6 teacher, had a volunteer from Refugee 613 present to his class about the Canadian and international response to the refugee crisis. Students learned about the role of the UNHCR and other NGO’s take on in our communities in their support for refugees.

It is not often in life that schools and teachers get an opportunity to both educate and lead the community in welcoming others. We were delighted to be able to contribute.

Shannon Gamble is a member of the Ottawa- Carlton Teacher Local. 

ETFO staff are currently conducting workshops to assist members in meeting the needs of Syrian and other children arriving as refugees. Contact your local for more information.

RELATED STORIES

Carla Abrams, Ghana 2001

Project Overseas is a joint endeavour by the Canadian Teachers' Federation (CTF) and its affiliates across Canada. The project is designed to give professional assistance to fellow teachers in developing countries. Project Overseas 1 operates during July and August.