Toronto’s Catholic school board became a bridge into Canadian society for Christine Shekherdmian who arrived as a refugee with two young children and husband, none of whom spoke English, earlier this year. (Photo by Evan Boudreau) For Christine Shekherdmian, a Syrian refugee with two school-aged children, Toronto’s Catholic school board casts a bright light onto her family’s future. Photo by Evan Boudreau.

Toronto's Catholic School board opens arms for refugees

  • October 27, 2016

TORONTO – When Christine Shekherdmian, a Syrian refugee from Aleppo, registered her two children at Annunciation Catholic School in Toronto, she was given a welcome she never expected.

“They were very, very helpful, all of the people,” said the 35-year-old who’d grown accustomed to hearing ‘no’ when asking for help. “I’ve never seen people like them before. We were treated like family.”

Shekherdmian arrived in Canada 10 months ago along with her husband and children George, 11, and Melissa, 5. They had been living as refugees in Jordan since 2013 after fleeing the war in Syria.

“In 2011, when the war started, we had hope that it would stop soon,” she said. “Unfortunately it only got worse. When we were still in Syria our fears only grew because we knew that any minute death could come.

“This thought haunted us as parents of young children.”

Now officially a member of Toronto’s Catholic education community, Shekherdmian’s fears for the safety of her children have been replaced with a vision of a “bright future, a shiny future for my children.”

Creating that new beginning for immigrant families is more than good manners; it is essential, said the Toronto Catholic board’s director of education, Angela Gauthier.

“This school board exists because of immigrant Catholics who had the foresight and the courage to set up Catholic education which has been so instrumental in providing for new families,” said Gauthier, who was eight years old when she immigrated to Canada with her family from Italy. “(Immigrants) are the strength of this school board.”

She went on to praise the more than 9,000 employees who work within the board’s 199 schools for “going the extra mile” to “develop the skills to achieve excellence in mind, body and soul” in students new to the country.

“Sometimes they are the family away from home,” she said during an event held Oct. 21 at the board’s offices highlighting the partnerships and efforts made within schools for newcomers.

Kayla Li, an 18-year-old from China who has been studying at St. Mary’s Catholic Secondary School since 2015, seconds that remark.

“I really appreciate the teachers in our school,” she said. “(Without them) it would be so hard because I came here alone, I don’t have a family with me, so if I have something that really upset me I wouldn’t have somebody to speak to. They’re kind of like my family here in Canada.”

For Li the biggest hurdle as a newcomer is the language barrier, which leaves many unwilling to engage in the classroom or with peers outside the school.

“We can’t really speak English which makes us feel lonely and afraid,” she said. “But the teachers always say ‘don’t worry, you’re going to do fine’. They always encourage us so that makes us feel confident.”

This kind of mentoring is the result of the foundation of Christian values in Catholic education, said Cardinal Thomas Collins, archbishop of Toronto.

“At the heart of Catholic education is to know the difference between who and what,” he said. “Things are to be used, people are to be loved; not the other way around. That spirit of reverence of each person is the spirit of Catholic education.”

That spirit gives Catholic education an edge, said Collins, when it comes to helping the roughly 2,000 newcomer students to Toronto Catholic schools each year.

“School is a very important way in which people are integrated into society and our Catholic school system takes a lead in that,” he said.

Gauthier noted that parents of students are also provided opportunities in the schools to help in the transition to new surroundings. Among those are parent councils, information nights hosted by the board and an Adult English as a Second Language (ESL) program.

Additionally the board has a number of partnerships with community agencies who can provide assistance with resettling such as Culture Link, Catholic Cross Cultural Services and the local parish.

While joining a parent council is still outside of Shekherdmian’s comfort zone, she has enrolled in the ESL program.

“When we first came to Canada I didn’t really know English,” she said, admitting her family had intended to return to Syria from Jordan. “I couldn’t understand people so I’d just say yes, okay. Then I started to go to ESL classes and … that changed everything.”

Once her English improves, Shekherdmian intends to get her hairstylist’s license to pick up the career she left behind in Syria along with so much else.

“Me and my husband and our children are so happy and glad to be here in Canada,” she said. “By the will of God we will stay here. We will change everything to make the best future for my children.”

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