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When it comes to settling in a new country, life is a series of firsts for newcomer students, from experiencing that first winter to learning a new language.
Grant Park High School has helped newcomer students reach these milestones for many years through its Literacy Transition Centre and its day-to-day operations. The recent influx of newcomers from areas such as Syria is simply business as usual for the school.
Rather than use a one-size-fits-all program, the school uses a variety of approaches, such as a newcomer-tailored Grade 7 and 8 classroom, the transition centre and varying levels of integration to meet students' needs.
"The word 'newcomer' can have different meanings," said Principal Susan Anderson. "We have newcomers who arrive as refugees, who may have had interrupted schooling or no schooling. We also have students whose families are just moving here from other countries for job opportunities, and some whose families are staying behind in their home country and sponsoring their children to attend school here."
For Grant Park students who have lived in Canada for all of their lives, it's an opportunity to see their country with fresh eyes.
"We have newcomers from all over the world here. Columbian, Ukrainian, Iraqi…it's all happening on a regular basis," said Vice-Principal Mohammed Rezai. "It's an enrichment opportunity for all of our students."
In a school that is also home to over 200 Inclusive Education students, Grant Park students have long been used to a diversity of friendships and backgrounds.
"It's always two-way street. The newcomer students are teaching us as well…our students and staff get a sense of the broader world," Ms. Anderson said.
"I have a future now"
Salih Naso is a 19-year-old refugee student who came to Grant Park from Iraq in September. At the beginning he had no English comprehension at all.
"The cold weather is the most difficult thing," Salih said. "It's good, I like Grant Park. I like the teachers, the sports…the school so different than my old school. Life is easier than in the camps."
Salih has already become a leader and ambassador for incoming newcomers.
"Salih worked hard to learn English, now he's helping us translate with other newcomer students if we can't understand each other," Mr. Resai said. "Some of our new arrivals came from the same refugee camp as Salih, so to have him at our school ready to help out was amazing."
"I meet the new students, I help them and take them to class," Salih added.
Among those new students is Diyar Salih, a 20-year-old Iraqi who came to Grant Park in December, after spending time in a Turkish refugee camp. When asked about the most difficult aspect of adjusting to Canada, he replied: "Nothing. I like being in Canada. I have a future here."
Both students have found other connections to their school through sports like soccer and volleyball.
"Those early connections they make, even in the first week or so, can be very meaningful," Mr. Rezai said. "One of the things we try to do with the newcomer students is to take a look at their interests and connect them with it at the school, if it's sports or whatever the case may be, just to give them that experience of being with different circles of students."
Mr. Rezai cites one group of newcomer students who have connected to the wider school community through a sewing club.
"They started off with hand gestures and began to learn the words they needed," he said. "You're taking baby steps, putting them into English literacy classes, numeracy classes and getting them to a point where they can have basic communication and determine what is a best fit for them in terms of option classes."
Mr. Rezai speaks from experience, as he was once a newcomer to Canada himself. After spending 18 months in a Turkish refugee camp, he came to Canada to start a new life decades ago. Today, Mr. Rezai is able to use some of his other languages, such as Kurdish and Turkish, to communicate with newcomer students.
"I have an idea of what they've been through and some of the challenges they'll go through," he said.
Intercultural support workers
To help newcomers with adjusting to their new school, WSD has Intercultural Support Workers that can speak with students and their family members in over 20 languages, from Arabic to Urdo to Vietnamese.
"We make arrangements to match the student and parents with an appropriate cultural support worker," said Joseph Fofanah, a Grant Park Intercultural Support Worker who speaks Creole and Gbandi. "We try to connect them with community resources that will enhance their knowledge outside of the school setting."
That can mean connecting families with community support groups such as Welcome Place and IRCOM, or providing access to hearing tests and hearing aids for students who need them. It's a varied job that both strengthens newcomers' community ties and targets barriers to learning.
The key to making students feel welcome is flexibility. Grant Park has taken students out for swimming lessons, including making accommodations for all-girl/female instructed swim classes (in accordance with some cultures' practices).
In March, the school booked ice at a nearby community arena after some of the newcomers expressed a desire to learn how to skate.
"The boys said to be Canadian, you need to learn how to skate. So this Wednesday we'll be renting an indoor arena and taking the boys skating," Ms. Anderson said.
"The bottom line is that we want to make these students feel welcome and this school to reflect who they are as people."
Parents have also been supportive; Grant Park's 20-plus strong Parent Book Club started off the school year with a study of Jan Stewart's Supporting Refugee Children.
"Three of the parents in that book club arrived in Canada as refugees or newcomers," Ms. Anderson said. "Our parents met once a month and looked at what it meant to be a refugee, and how we can support these students as a school. Parents are interested because their children are coming home and talking about the connections they've made with the newcomer students."
Instead of focusing on differences, the Grant Park community has found a balance of finding common ground and celebrating cultural uniqueness.
"Any one of us at any time could be in their situation. These are families and children who have courageously dealt with very difficult situations in their lives," Ms. Anderson said. "These are families that want the best for their kids…and we're all part of the same community."
Mr. Rezai echoed those sentiments: "The thing with these students is that they want to be part of this community. They want to be part of the fabric of our society. There are challenges, but these kids are so resilient."