A safe place for Syrian students at the Richmond School District

by Christopher Sun, Writer, British Columbia School Trustees Association

NOTE: Names of the family were changed, as requested by the school.


Rima was nervous and tearful when she brought her school-aged son and daughter to Richmond’s McKay elementary for the first time.

The mother of three and her children only spoke Arabic, having just arrived from Syria. Her daughter Amira was starting Grade 5 and her son, Zahid, was entering Grade 2. They were accompanied by an English speaking aunt, Fawzia, who already lived in the community and acted as a translator for them.

Principal Marilyn Turnbull was the first person they met and she put Rima at ease by welcoming them personally, giving them a tour of the school and introducing them to various faculty and staff.

“When a new family arrives here, whether from Syria or a neighbouring school district, the one thing we want to establish is trust,” Turnbull said. “You want to put them at ease, especially when you see a mother in tears because she’s scared and nervous.”

Turnbull refrains from calling the family “refugees” as she wants to make them feel like regular people who are new to the community.

During the tour, the family visited a Grade 2 class where students were happily singing. They also saw a Kindergarten class with excited and smiling kids, when suddenly a class of Grade 7 students came in, surprising Rima. Fawzia asked why the older students were coming in, and Turnbull explained they have a buddy system at the school, which allows the older and younger kids to play and interact with each other. Tears then streamed down Rima’s cheeks.

“We want to make the family feel accepted here, make sure that they know they are in a safe place, a safe school, a safe country,” Turnbull said. “I told her she can stay as long as she wants as I could tell she was still a bit apprehensive.”

A nice surprise for the family was when three Arabic students ran up to the Amira and Zahid, speaking to them in a familiar language, offering to hang out, show them around and introduce them to other students during recess and lunch. As Valentine’s Day was being celebrated at the school the next day, February 12, Amira’s and Zahid’s teachers asked Fawzia if the kids would like to participate.

“The aunt spoke up and said, ‘of course they can participate! I will bring cookies. We are in Canada now,” Turnbull recalled.

“The two are adjusting very nicely,” Turnbull added.

On the second day of school for Amira and Zahid, Fawzia told Turnbull that the night before their first day of school, the two couldn’t sleep because they were apprehensive, but the next night, they couldn’t sleep because they were excited to go back.

While the school tries to treat the family like a new arrival to the community, there is a Settlement Worker in School (SWIS) contact for Rima’s family. That SWIS contact acts as a bridge between the school and community such as helping the family find housing and access medical and dental services.

And there will be support available should the students show any stress and trauma from what they experienced in Syria.

“Some have gone through extreme turmoil,” said Richmond school district chair Donna Sargent. “When you come from a war-torn country, it does something to a person’s mental health.”

“As we get to know them and if we see any needs arise, we will address them,” Turnbull said.

Sargent added that a SWIS worker also helps with helping a family open a bank account, grocery shop and to fill the gaps for a newcomer. An added bonus is the support and positive response they are getting from the community.

“They said we need a car seat so I put something out in our school and families came out with strollers, clothes, home baking, toys, everything they think a new family would need,” Turnbull said. “I introduced the mother to the parent who supplied the car seat, the stroller, to help make that connection. Even though she can’t speak English, you can tell she was thankful with her smiling, shaking hands and nodding.”

It’s been a couple of weeks since Amira and Zahid started school and Turnbull said they are settling in nicely. Zahid was away sick for a few days and when he returned, she asked if he was feeling better, in English.

“He said, ‘not sick,’” Turnbull said. “They are learning English so quickly.”

Currently, there are three Syrian families being privately sponsored with five kids attending a Richmond school. Three more are expected to come, but that number can increase at anytime.

“It has been a real treat welcoming this family,” Turnbull added.

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