Edmonton schools gearing up for wave of Syrian students

A world map, hanging in a classroom in St. Catherine School in Edmonton. Students have placed pins in the areas they lived before moving to Canada. Kendra Slugoski / Global News

EDMONTON – There’s a world map hanging in a classroom in St. Catherine Catholic School.

On the map, the school’s students have stuck pins in the regions they lived in before coming to Canada. Some places, like the Phillipines, Nepal, Thailand, and areas of East Africa, are full of pins.

Soon, Syria will be well marked, too.

READ MORE: Health care providers preparing to help Syrian refugee children and babies

Over the next few months, Alberta will see as many as 3,000 refugees coming from Syria. Many schools, including St. Catherine’s, are expecting to see many new Canadian children coming to class. They’ll face unique challenges, and school staff intend on helping as much as possible.

“Often they’re coming from a setting that’s very different,” said Principal Dwain Tymchyshyn.

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“There’s a period of adjustment for their families – to get used to school here, to get used to housing here.”

Teaching recent immigrants is nothing new for St. Catherine’s; Tymchyshyn estimates 95 per cent of the school’s students and parents are new to Canada.

The school has worked with Catholic Social Services (CSS) and recent immigrants before. Many of the new Canadians CSS works with live close to St. Catherine’s.

READ MORE: “I don’t have a weapon in my hand. I’m just a human being.” Syrian refugee pleads for understanding

Tymchyshyn thinks the new Syrian students and families will adjust well to the school experience.

“Most students who come from different countries, they want to come to school. School is kind of a happy place for them. It’s a refuge, because it’s stability and it’s structure.”

Most of the students coming from Syria either speak very little English or don’t speak any at all. They’ll have company in Edmonton’s school system; around one in five public and Catholic school students in Edmonton don’t speak English as a first language.

Younger students usually pick up the language more quickly than their older counterparts. Accommodations like special classes or translators will be available for kids who need English support.

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“The younger the child comes in, the greater the opportunity for immersion in the regular classroom,” said Marlene Hanson, a diversity co-ordinator with Edmonton Public Schools.

“In our elementary schools, the children will be very much placed in the regular classrooms. Some of our high schools do indeed have sheltered English language sites.”

“We know the kids who are coming have probably been out of school for two or three years,” said Erick Ambtman, the executive director of Edmonton’s Mennonite Centre for Newcomers.

READ MORE: UN: Syria refugee children working, missing school

Some schools are also putting together mental health services for the new students. Most of the Syrian students have seen violence and death first-hand.

“We know in this group that at least 70 per cent have some degree of PTSD,” said Ambtman.

While the students are still new to Canada, Tymchyshyn believes they won’t have any problems making friends. He recalls a conversation he had recently with the school’s vice-principal.

“She said she remembers two little students in primary, saying, ‘Well, I was new yesterday, and you’re new today, so we can be friends now.’”


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