Catholic schools are expecting a large influx of refugee students when school begins in September. Photo by Michael Swan

New kids on the block face steep learning curve

By 
  • August 18, 2018

The recess bell rings and a child dives for cover underneath her desk. A teacher is at the front of the classroom but a student is wandering from desk to desk starting conversations of his own. The lunch bell rings and several pupils have arrived without lunch, or uniforms, or gym clothes. A six-year-old turns up in school mid-morning, but doesn’t have enough English to tell the school secretary who she is, where she’s from or where she’s supposed to be.

As these refugee and immigrant children struggle in their new Canadian environment, so too do those trying to help them. In Toronto Catholic schools, children and their teachers are cooking up a new city, a new future, one refugee child at a time. That reality has become even more pressing with a recent spike in refugee claims and asylum seekers.

“We had a Syrian family where every time the bell would ring, they would just get very scared or would hide under the desk,” recalled Catholic Cross Cultural Services settlement worker Zohra Gillani. “The teacher couldn’t understand why they would be doing that. We found out that it was because of the war situation. There’s bells that went off (in Syria) whenever they got ready for different attacks. It’s really sad.”

Syrian refugees who came to GTA Catholic schools two years ago presented challenges not only because of the trauma many of the children carried with them but because they had been out of school for years.

“A lot of these kids or youth have not seen formal schooling for many years. It could be anywhere from three to five years,” said Gillani. “So they’re not familiar with formal education. Some of them have never even gone to school.”

In the past year, Syrian refugees have been overtaken by a wave of Nigerian asylum seekers.

“After Christmas, we had daily registrations. This office, this room, was full,” St. Kateri Tekakwitha School principal Chiara Mondelli told The Catholic Register just before the end of the school year in June.

“The same at our school,” said St. Gerald principal Anna Garibotti.

“It was unbelievable. They were coming in droves,” said Mondelli.

The crush of people slipping across the Canada-U.S. border to make refugee claims is easing off, with just 1,263 irregular border crossers claiming asylum in June, a 50-per-cent decrease from the situation just three months earlier. But Toronto Catholic schools still expect large numbers of refugee students, in addition to all the other immigrant families, when school starts again in September.

Neighbouring school principals in an immigrant-heavy corner of North York, Garibotti and Mondelli aren’t panicking.

“It did come up at parent council,” said Mondelli. “I would explain — you know, ‘We had it a couple of years ago. It will calm down. It will be fine.’ ”

The new kids are sprinkled in classrooms throughout the school so that it’s just one or two per class, Mondelli said. But there can be  pressures when class sizes balloon beyond the caps mandated in collective agreements with the teachers’ union.

“It has affected a few people (teachers) here. They’re feeling the stress of the numbers,” said Mondelli.

“I have to say I think at both schools, people have been very understanding,” said Garibotti. “And for lack of a better word, Christian.”

Teachers have put in thousands of hours of extra work helping those kids, said Garibotti. “Actually, sometimes I’ve had to pull back and say, ‘Enough!’ ” she said.

For teachers, students and parents, initial worries about classroom disruption and overcrowding have given way to empathy for struggling newcomer families who can’t afford field trips, don’t have school uniforms and don’t know how things work in Canada.

“We’ve had knapsacks donated,” said Mondelli. “Like winter clothing — a lot of them came during the winter season and of course they didn’t have anything.”

Parents organized clothing drives. Mondelli has brought clothes into school from her own closet and from her neighbours.

“We’ve had parent donations. It’s just been awesome that way,” said Garibotti.

Running shoes and knapsacks are fairly easy problems to solve compared to the complexities of getting a refugee child settled into a school. Garibotti spent hours every week during the past school year working with one Nigerian student who needed extra help just to adjust to recess, let alone accept such concepts as following instructions and participating in class.

At one point, Garibotti asked the boy what would happen if he disrupted class this way in his old school in Nigeria.

“I would get a beating,” the boy answered.

Knowing there were no beatings at the Toronto school, the student gave into every impulse. At recess, which he had never experienced in Nigeria, he was even wilder.

“It’s a different situation and he didn’t know how to manage it,” Garibotti said.

Garibotti and her teachers worked out a system to monitor the boy’s behaviour and record it every half-hour through the day. At the end of the week, a report of every disruption and every period of calm, quiet work went home to his father. The father would review, sign and add comments of his own. The extra work put into this one student resulted in improved behaviour and performance at school.

“The parents really do want them in the school,” said Mondelli.

Nigerian parents see Canadian Catholic schools as an opportunity for their children and they are anxious to take full advantage.

“Generally speaking I have to say, out of all the populations that have come to St. Gerald, the kids are very well behaved and very accommodating, very helpful and the parents are, too,” said Garibotti. “The majority of kids have been trying their best in school. Parents have been doing their best at home, trying to help them at home, doing homework and understanding what the system is.”

For families, the process of registering a child for school and getting involved in a school community is the leading edge of learning about life in Canada.

“Whether it’s the parents, the children or youth — the whole family is helped,” said Gillani. “One of our major goals or objectives is to help newcomer families integrate into the Canadian education system.”

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