The challenges of Langley School District Karen refugee students

by Christopher Sun
British Columbia School Trustees Association



Moving to Canada was supposed to be the start of a better and happier life for Buela, her parents and ten siblings, but two years after leaving a refugee camp for Langley, her ten year-old sister died after a bone-marrow transplant.

That sister had Thalassemia, a blood disorder that causes red blood cells to destruct, something three other siblings also have, including one born in Canada. When Buela’s family arrived as Karen refugees from Myanmar (Burma) in 2008, they needed help navigating the medical system, finding a home that would fit them all comfortably and learning a new language and culture.

“One thing that really stood out is the variety of needs they have,” explained Langley school board chair Robert McFarlane. “Simple things like having to get money from a bank, opening a bank account, paying bills, how to use a grocery store. Really basic stuff. Some Karen students entering our schools were born in refugee camps and lived there all their lives.”

An insurgency stemming from 1949 displaced hundreds of thousands of Karens with more than 140,000 living in refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar border. In 2006, the federal government started work on bringing almost 4,000 Karen refugees to Canada. Buela’s family arrived in 2008 and they are among the almost 350 that settled in Langley.

“Most settled in the Douglas Park Elementary area so we were able to focus our efforts there,” McFarlane said about the support required such as a translators and counsellors. “The lady translating for us was a refugee. She came the year before.”

While the school district had support in place and available for the newly-arrived Karen students, their parents needed support too. When Buela and her family arrived, they received support through the Langley District Settlement Workers in Schools program and community organizations such as Immigrant Services Society.

“The school district focuses on the child and student but we cannot ignore the needs of the family,” McFarlane said. “The family needs to succeed so their children can succeed.”

As Buela got older, she became active in her school and community. She joined the badminton team, and various school groups such as social justice and an anti-bullying club. This lead to giving workshops to Grade 6 students about bullying. She also got her first job, working at McDonalds. Now 19 and graduating in June, she and a younger sister have taken on more responsibilities in helping their family, such as translating for their parents and taking other siblings to medical appointments.

McFarlane said there was probably some typical schoolyard bullying and harassment of the Karen students when they arrived but such actions have become less tolerated over the years. Those students seem to be doing well now, almost 10 years after arriving. A few years ago, McFarlane spoke at a graduation ceremony when the first Karen student graduated, and they are continuing to graduate out of the school system. Buela’s post-secondary plan is to study business and accounting.

Langley school district has the experience to handle another influx of refugees, having gone through welcoming and integrating refugee students almost a decade ago, but McFarlane does not foresee that happening. Most of the 25,000 Syrian refugees the federal government are committed to bringing by the end of February are settling in Toronto and Montreal. Those that come to B.C. are settling in Vancouver, Burnaby and Surrey.

“I’m aware of one family that has been sponsored privately, but I don’t know if they have school-aged children,” McFarlane said about Syrian refugees coming to Langley. “We’re not expecting a lot of refugees going directly to Langley but I know Langley may be where some ultimately end up because housing is less expensive here.”

According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, as of January 21, 12,729 Syrian refugees have arrived into Canada.

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