Learning to belong

OSSTF/FEESO members help new Canadians become part of the community

photo of brothers Three brothers from Syria—Jikar, Ahmed and Mohammed

Twenty sets of eyes are intently trained on Pia Jamal as she stands in front of her class. The men and women lean in as she speaks.

“How do you dress your children for winter when it’s cold outside?” she asks.

“Wear a hat!” calls out one.

“Scarf,” says another.

“And mittens,” says a woman proudly, carefully enunciating each syllable.

“Boots,” says a young man.

“What kind of boots?” Pia asks slowly. “Nice boots?”

“No, not nice boots,” says another woman shaking her head, “Winter boots.”

“Waterproof!” a young man says seriously.

“Good! Yes! Waterproof boots are best in the winter,” encourages Pia and then asks him, “What does waterproof mean?”

“It means that water cannot…,” he falters, “It means water cannot….” He looks. His lips move as he silently runs through his personal stock of newlylearned English words. His classmates study him closely.

“Cannot get in,” he says finally. “Waterproof means water cannot get in.”

His classmates smile and nod. The biggest smile is on Pia’s face. Her students, each one a recent refugee, are learning. Each is in her class to face their greatest challenge since arriving in Canada: learning English.

“We’re mostly women,” says Pia Jamal, President of OSSTF/FEESO District 24, Waterloo’s Adult Educators & Instructors and Childcare Workers (AEICW), “and that’s not really a surprise considering our history.” She goes on to explain how the teaching of English to newcomers, both immigrants and refugees, has its roots in the basements of local churches. “Women have always been a big part of helping newcomers settle, but teaching them English has always been the most important part of that transition.”

Pia is one of 40 adult educators and instructors employed by the Waterloo Catholic District School Board at three larger separate sites and many smaller ones. All of them have their Teachers of English as a Second Language (TESL) certification. The board also employs around 15 childcare workers who care for the adult students’ children while they are in class. Some of these English classes are federally sponsored through the Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) program and funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).

“Pia is good teacher.”

I’m sitting across from Riyad and Hamida Hejjo. “But learning English is crazy.”

Riyad and Hamida fled their home in Aleppo where Riyad worked as an industrial electrician. With their three children, they considered themselves lucky to have found their way to Canada.

“War. Bombs,” says Hamida shaking her head; she still has family living in Aleppo. When she first arrived in Canada she made a common mistake for newcomers. With her new cellphone she racked up a giant phone bill making desperate calls to her family in Aleppo.

“Now we use WhatsApp,” she says smiling wryly, referring to the much more affordable digital messaging service.

When I ask what they have learned in class she lists off, “Banking, library, doctor, and…oh, reading label for medicine, very important.” Riyad and Hamida attend English class every morning and then return home to do chores.

Their two older children have settled in local schools and their youngest attends daycare in this building. The oldest is interested in computers, the middle child loves art and drawing.

photo of teachers and students

(l-r) Teacher Pia Jamal with her students from Aleppo, Hamida and Riyad, and their son, with ECE Lisa Erickson

“Canada is good for kids,” says Hamida. “The dream is here.”

Paola has just dropped off her daughter at one of the two daycares at the St. Louis Adult Learning Centre. She is shy to answer questions at first, apologizing for her difficulty with English. However, when I ask her about her instructor, she quickly describes her.

“My teacher Pat,” she says, “she is the best teacher. She teaches us English and she teaches us what is good and not good to do in Canada.” Paola goes on to explain that the cultural learning that goes on in her class is almost as important as learning the language. She describes how her classmates are from many different countries and how they each have different customs.

“Pat is very respectful. She teaches us to accept each other’s ideas and to be respectful when giving your opinion,” she explains.

But it is learning English that is imperative for Paola. An immigrant from Colombia, she followed her husband to Canada when they no longer felt safe there. Trained as an industrial engineer and employed as a jewelry designer, Paola knows that her prospects for work in Canada are slim until she can improve her English.

“Nothing is easy, but when you work hard in Canada anything is possible,” she says. “I will take classes to improve my English, get a job and own my own business.” She and her husband have begun to purchase the tools Paola will need to fashion jewelry and she has already begun to look into possible rental space for the project. One day she hopes to volunteer helping other new Canadians with her financial and business knowledge.

“Life is better for us now, but not because of getting a better job. It is because my husband is getting more hours at work. We will continue learning and improving English and looking for better opportunities. When we get better jobs, we can improve our level of life, but it is step by step. Now we are in a better apartment, we bought a car, and we can buy different things for our daughter and ourselves too. It takes time and much effort.”

Until then, Paola and her daughter together will continue coming to the St. Louis Learning Centre because, as she emphatically states, “I could not come to English class without the daycare.”

Lisa Erickson pulls out two tiny chairs and indicates for me to sit.

“These are the largest chairs we have,” she apologizes. Knees cracking, we sit down at an equally tiny table as two other childcare workers rush around us to prepare the daycare before the children arrive.

Lisa is an Early Childhood Educator (ECE) and has worked here for six years, caring for the children of parents taking English classes in the building. Having worked in a more traditional daycare before, she can easily describe how differently the children of refugees experience daycare.

“Initially it is not uncommon for the children to have a high level of separation anxiety. Most have been kept very close in the safety of their family before coming here and may not have had many opportunities to play with other children,” she explains. “Many of them need encouragement to develop self-confidence in a group setting, master self-help skills, and learn how to problem solve. Believe it or not, some even need to learn how to play, as they may not have had exposure to the many types of materials we have available at the centre.”

photo of teacher and student

ECE Lisa Erickson with Syrian child student

“We had one little guy who patrolled the daycare with a toy walkie-talkie in one hand. He walked around the perimeter of the room directing other children in a loud and firm voice. You can only imagine what he had witnessed in his life that to have developed this tough outward appearance. By the end of the year he had become a little boy who loved to draw and always entered the room with a big smile on his face. It was an amazing transformation.”

Parents also face daycare challenges as most have never left their children in the care of others.

“We have to build that extra layer of trust and respect with the parents,” says Lisa. “They need to know that even the smallest request they make for their children will be followed through on. They need to know that their children will be safe with us and that they’re dressed warmly for cold outings.”

Having a daycare in the same building where the parents are studying is essential. Lisa shares that throughout the day it is not unusual to see a parent’s head fill the small window of the daycare’s door as they reassure themselves that their child is safe.

. . . . .

As an adult instructor Patricia Maya puts her students’ emotional needs first.

“I’ve had some students cry,” She says, “They tell me, ‘I used be a doctor in my country and now I have trouble learning even little English words!’”

“Sometimes I have to be a mother to my students,” she continues, “I need to provide them with a supportive atmosphere. I need to let them know that it is okay to make mistakes. My goal is to make my classroom a place where they can forget their troubles, laugh, and feel safe. Learning English sometimes seems like a bonus.”

Patricia goes on to explain their assessment system. The school operates on Canadian Language Benchmarks which measures students’ skills of listening (comprehension), speaking (language), writing and reading English. There are 12 levels with task-based lessons and Portfolio-Based Language Assessments. For a specific job, an employer will require that the applicant achieve a specific minimum level in each of the four areas.

“Without us and this program, they can’t get into the workforce,” Patricia summarizes.

While for most of these students the learning of English is a step toward their ultimate goal of finding a job, it also presents a dilemma. Students learn English so they can get a job and make money; the longer they study and the better their English gets, the better the chance at a higher-paying job. But at some point each must decide when their English is good enough or when the need for a job is too urgent.

“Essentially some of these students are faced with sacrificing their English skills in order to start making money,” says Patricia.

. . . . .

Their students call Pia and Pat, “teacher” but they and their colleagues are considered instructors, not teachers, and their pay and working conditions reflect this. Despite all being TESL-trained, instructors are paid between $30 and $40 an hour. With a full workload of 5.5 hours, most full-time instructors earn less than $40,000 a year. Childcare workers earn substantially less, with certified registered ECEs making close to $20 an hours and others receiving barely above minimum wage.

photo of teacher and student

TESL Pia Jamal explains the rules of grammar to one of her students

Across the province, both instructors and childcare workers have shockingly little prep time when compared to teachers. Many do not have access to health benefits or LTD. Considering the essential service provided by these (mostly) women, their compensation and working conditions are not commensurate with the good work they do.

As Canada continues to open itself to the world’s most desperate and unfortunate, it is those like Pia, Pat and Lisa who help transform their dreams of a new prosperous life into reality.

. . . . .

“Every day, all the time, I search online and on TV about Syria,” Mohammed leans over the table and looks directly at me, “Our parents and sister are still in Syria.” His two brothers, Jikar and Ahmed nod as they let Mohammed tell their story. He is their oldest brother and his English is better.

They left rich lives behind in their Kurdish village outside of Aleppo just south of the Turkish border.

“We had cars. We had apartments. We had good-paying jobs,” says Mohammed. “I was an electrician,” he says then points to each brother, “Jikar worked with tiles and Ahmed worked with cars.”

But the war in Syria put all their families in danger. By the time they left for Turkey, their village no longer had any doctors or nurses. He tells of months of paperwork and phone calls to the UN until he was able to arrange his and his brothers’ and their families’ move to Canada. Now, like all the students here, they see learning English and finding a job to be their two biggest challenges.

photo of teacher and students

Adult instructor Patricia Maya teacher her students

“Benchmarks are very important to employers,” says Mohammed. He understands that his English must improve so that he can apply for his electrician’s license in Ontario.

“If I get a good-paying job, everything around me will be changed. I can plan for the future. I can buy a house, a car and help my family back home. I can improve the life for all of my family,” he says. But Mohammed also looks further into his future, “I’d like to travel to get to know more about the provinces of Canada and the people of Canada and the government. I want to learn more about my new country.”

When asked, his brothers also say they would like to each buy a house for their family. “But in a different neighbourhood than Mohammed’s,” jokes Jikar. It’s a light moment in a serious interview as the talk turns to the topic of their children and how they must (and are) adapting to life in Canada.

Mohammed reminds me that it is his children and his nieces and nephews that are the reason he and Jikar and Ahmed and their wives are all in Canada.

“We came for our children’s safety,” he says. “There is no other reason.”

photo of student and teacher

(l-r) Student Paola visits her daughter in the on-site daycare with her instructor Patricia Maya

About Randy Banderob
Randy Banderob is an Executive Assistant working in the Educational Services Department at Provincial Office.

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