Student refugees make a new start in Abbotsford schools

Twenty-five Syrian families came to Abbotsford as of February 22, 2016. Twenty-two of the families arrived as Government Sponsored Refugees (GARS) and three families came as Privately Sponsored Refugees (PSRS).  In total, there were 116 children and 59 parents; 96 were school-aged children (k-12) with 10 pre-k’s who registered for kindergarten in September, 2016. The families were processed in terms of documentation, health screening and immunization and other pertinent information. Several new families arrived in the fall of 2016 and Abbotsford expects more in 2017.

The Abbotsford School District designed a detailed plan for the successful integration of these students and families to minimize further stress and anxiety. School registrations was done at a local hotel and parent information and orientation sessions were held to welcome the newcomers and inform them of the school system. These presentations were conducted with images and pictures with the assistance of Arabic translators, so that parents could get a brief overview of the school system.

A three-day orientation session was held for the students. They were placed in groups of 10 and district teachers began language assessments and introduced students to basic routines through easy and fun art and craft activities.

Because these students came with difficult experiences, trauma and displacement, the district decided to gently ease their transition into schools. As a result, five new sheltered immersion classes were created in schools at each level: one secondary class, one middle school class and three elementary classes. Before commencing academic work, the initial focus was on the students’ well-being, sense of safety and belonging, understanding of routines, learning how schools work and district behavioral expectations.

Students received intensive language training from March to June. The teachers of these short-term classes received special training on working with refugee children. As the students became more comfortable, they began to join the regular students for recess and lunch, then school assemblies, events and even courses. Ongoing training was provided to classroom teachers, specialist teachers, vice-principals and principals on cultural competency and awareness and what supports were appropriate for this particular group. Parent training was simultaneously provided about the school system and its expectations. Additionally, all school district counsellors attended a full day training session with a specialist from the Vancouver Association for the Survivors of Torture (VAST) in Vancouver, so that they would approach needs for this group in an informed and sensitive manner.

Almost all of the Syrian refugee students were enrolled in summer school and transportation was provided by the district. In the fall, all the newcomer students were enrolled in their catchment area schools and fully integrated into regular classes.

In response to the newest additions to the classroom, an unidentified Abbotsford School District Grade 4 teacher stated the following. “The three Syrian girls in my class have made a real positive impact on the rest of my students.  My class have become more understanding and aware of other cultures. They have learned to respect their differences while realizing that even though they may dress differently, eat different food than them and speak a different language, they are not all that different from them. My students have become compassionate about their situation and realize to be thankful for the safety and stable life they have in Canada. My 3 Syrian girls are all important members of our class community.”

Schools are reporting that students are adjusting well and learning with great enthusiasm. Challenges exist; these newcomers still need support in many aspects. However, the staff in all departments of the Abbotsford School District, Abbotsford Community Services, Settlement Workers and Arabic translators have pulled together to provide comprehensive wrap around services for these families.


Writer: Kevin Godden, Superintendent of Schools, School District 34 (Abbotsford)

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