Iraqi children find a home in Toronto school

  • April 29, 2010
St. Andrew’s SchooolTORONTO - Like most refugees in Canada, Khulood Jarjass appreciates her new homeland for its relative safety, the freedom, the opportunity to dream again of a future for herself and her family. But what really excites the mother of three and former high school math teacher is a free Catholic education for her kids.

“When I heard in Canada it’s free — Oh my God!” she said. “I was so happy.”

Her kids range in age from seven to 13, Grades 2 to 7, all in St. Andrew’s in Toronto’s Rexdale neighbourhood. The Jarjass kids spent a year-and-a-half in crowded Syrian classrooms with a mass of other refugee students. Their teachers couldn’t help but look at the Iraqi students as an added burden and the Syrian kids saw the Iraqis as invaders in their schools. Syrian and Iraqi kids fought in and out of the classrooms.

Like most Iraqis, Jarjass is grateful to Syria for letting her family into the country and letting her kids go to public schools. But in the Baathist police state, schools are strictly secular. The prospect of going to the United States and being unable to afford parochial schools was discouraging. Knowing their choice of a Catholic education would be fully supported in Ontario made Jarjass more than happy.

“Especially for my kids, my God, it (a Catholic education) is important,” she said.

Faith and education are the foundations Jarjass has built her family on.

“Without learning, your life is nothing,” she declares.

For Jarjass’s neighbour Mazin Kachoy, who has a son and a daughter in St. Andrew’s, one of the best things about Canada is the importance Canadians place on education.

“Here in Canada, the great thing is children,” he said.

At St. Andrew’s hardly a day goes by without another Iraqi refugee family walking in to register their children. The school has picked up 50 extra students since September.

“Sometimes they come here straight from the airport,” said principal Michael Ricci.

The Kindergarten-to-Grade-8 school has the highest proportion of students enrolled in English as a Second Language classes in Toronto’s Catholic school board. Around 90 per cent of the ESL students are Iraqis. The school employs three full-time ESL teachers, plus a half-time teacher. With 560 students and growing, the school is bursting at the seams with two portables already full.

Even though the Iraqis belong to either the Chaldean rite or the Assyrian Church of the East and were confirmed at Baptism (the Roman rite delays Confirmation and Communion until the age of reason), the Iraqi students have swelled the school’s Confirmation and First Communion classes, as the families see any catechism as a good thing.

The Iraqi students also are convinced that rosaries in the drawers, crucifixes above the blackboards and prayers in the morning make their  school special.

Grade 8 student Michael Barkho won’t stand for any suggestion that his school is just like a public school.

“We’re all Christians here,” he said. “We go to church with our school, go to Mass with our school. It’s very good.”

While a group of Iraqi students can’t agree on whether their Canadian school is easier or harder than the schools they attended while their families were stranded in Damascus, they all like St. Andrew’s better.

“In Syria they slapped us with a ruler,” said Grade 6 pupil Suzan Yalda.

Getting along with the rich mix of immigrant kids at St. Andrew’s is a lot of fun for 12-year-old Stevany Yousif.

“It’s fun to talk with everybody and play with them,” she said. “There (in Syria) they used to hate us. They used to make fun of us.”

Getting students over the language barrier is a major challenge when their first language is Arabic, said ESL teacher Diana Noordin. Reading from left to right, capital letters, periods at the end of a sentence are all completely new concepts for Iraqi students. But Noordin feels she has an ally in the parents.

“They’re very involved parents,” she said.

While many Iraqi students have the advantage of parents like Jarjass, who was a high school math teacher in Baghdad and is working to requalify as a teacher in Toronto, or Kachou, who is taking courses and writing exams so his Iraqi qualifications as a pharmacist will be recognized in Ontario, educated and motivated Iraqi parents aren’t universally the case, said ESL teacher Rosalie Redigonda.

“We have parents who never come to any interviews,” she said.

When students have made little progress in English or otherwise, it usually corresponds to parents who are less involved, she said.

Last year Noordin put her ESL students in a Christmas pageant. Some of them had been in Canada just three months and the whole idea of a Christmas pageant was new to them. But they learned their lines and pulled it off in front of an audience.

“That was incredible,” said Noordin. “For sure, we’re being successful.”

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.