EDMONTON – It’s been more than a quarter-century since Anna Kirova moved to Edmonton as a refugee. The University of Alberta Early Childhood Education professor moved with her husband and young son. They wanted to be somewhere safe after being told returning to their homeland of Bulgaria was too dangerous.
Kirova knows first-hand what it’s like to move somewhere where you don’t know the language or culture. She moved from Paris, where her husband was doing a post-doctoral fellowship, to Quebec and eventually to Alberta’s capital city. With a rich background, she spoke Bulgarian, Russian and French but didn’t speak English, and said at the time there were no other Bulgarian families in Edmonton.
“The beginning, it’s almost paralysed by the inability to express one’s self,” Kirova said as she quoted German philosopher Martin Heidegger.
“The language is the house of being.”
Soon, thousands of Syrian refugees will call Canada home. Along with frigid winters, and a lack of knowledge in the English language, they will also face a cultural shift. So how do we make children refugees more comfortable in our classrooms?
“It’s an interesting question how we, after more than 40 years of multiculturalism, all of a sudden now begin to talk about these issues,” said Kirova, whose research has focused on developing an inter-cultural early learning program for immigrant and refugee children, including understanding how newcomer children experience loneliness and isolation in school. “It’s overdue.”
“We have, what we call in our field in education, a very superficial understanding of multiculturalism,” Kirova said, as she commented on the multiculturalism policies that are currently in place in Canadian classrooms.
Kirova’s research has been highly critical of the interpretation of multicultural policies in classrooms, and that the idea that multiculturalism is about much more than having a couple of books in a variety of languages, a doll of a different race, or hosting days focused on the food and entertainment of a culture, it’s about making children feel more comfortable, and tapping into the vast knowledge from their past.
“We’ve been very good in identifying what they can not do. What we haven’t really been good about is to identify what they can do.”
Kirova suggests focusing on their resourcefulness, strength and resiliency, as opposed to their lack of communication skills, knowledge of school routines and ability to pay attention in class.
“Many children have never held a pen or a pencil and this is one of the ways we assess children’s knowledge and skills,” Kirova said. “We need people from the communities to help us understand what is best for children when they come to the class.”
But the U of A professor did not play down the importance of the introduction of western ways into the school system for newcomers.
When her son first came to Canada, he was five years old and was unable to speak English. He resorted to non-verbal ways of communicating and was labelled a troublemaker, instead of helping foster relationships with other students.
“He became a different child,” Kirova said, adding her son spent hours in the principal’s office, isolated from other kids. “I began to realize how important it is for the school to step in and to really understand the trauma that children experience.”
Her work is now focused a lot on how to prevent similar isolation from happening to newcomers, encouraging them to get out in the community and take part in as many activities as possible, work with the school to help educators fully understand the potential of all students who enter their classroom, and focus on the child’s first language.
“Research now shows the fully developed first language actually helps the development of the second language,” Kirova added.
In schools now, many children are told to practice English at home with the parents. When young children are in school, they are still trying to develop their first language, and there can be confusion when introducing the second, which can cause issues for both languages.
“Children will learn english no matter what. What they won’t learn is their first language. ”
In the end, Kirova said it’s about open communication between cultural groups and schools. Neither can do it alone.