The foyer at the New Westminster Welcome Center becomes a buzz of activity as children and families enter the building: voices overlap as they greet the staff and each other; items are handed over to parents; curious glances peek over at the visitors; and slowly, children begin to enter the bright room and excitedly enjoy their snacks. Meanwhile, a young girl starts her first day in the program. Her parents chat with the tutor while she meets a new friend who will help her settle into the class. They just arrived in Canada a couple weeks ago. In the foyer, a small lounge area plays host to some of the parents who gather on the sofas to chat about their day and discuss the latest news. So begins another afternoon of United Way’s School’s Out program for Ukrainian children.
Facilitating connections for partnerships
Held at the New Westminster School District’s Welcome Centre, this after school program is slightly different than any other United Way British Columbia School’s Out program.
Funded by United Way British Columbia, MOSAIC’s Settlement Workers in Schools (SWIS) in partnership with Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) Friends of Simon project collaborated on this School’s Out program site exclusively for Ukrainian children ages 6-12 who are settling in the Lower Mainland.
The Friends of Simon project based in SFU’s Faculty of Education recruits, prepares, and assigns university students as literacy tutors to increase success for children afterschool in small group and individualized settings. During this United Way School’s Out program, the tutors work directly with Ukrainian children referred by MOSAIC’s SWIS staff to focus on activities related to English language learning, social and emotional development, fostering healthy relationships, and building connections. The connection between MOSAIC and SFU’s Friends of Simon tutoring project was facilitated by United Way British Columbia.
Settling into unfamiliar surroundings
When Inna first arrived in Canada with her family she was understandably nervous, but she soon found everyone friendly. “It was good after a while. Everyone is willing to listen and help.”
Living in a hotel for the first two weeks, the family was able to find an apartment through word of mouth. As they settled into their home, Inna began to take conversational English classes at MOSAIC where she learned about the United Way School’s Out program.
“It’s difficult to learn English; learn the system,” Inna says. However, the program has not only encouraged the children to improve their English language skills, but it has also become something to look forward to. “They are happy to come here. It’s fun for them and they love the tutors. They have a very engaging approach.”
Inna laughs when she explains how her two sons’, ages 7 and 11, have improved their English to the point they now correct her writing.
One of the positive aspects of the program for Inna’s boys is the opportunity to better their English with other Ukrainian children instead of navigating the journey alone. This is a common sentiment amongst the parents who value the community they’ve created together as much as they do the opportunity for their children.
Finding a sense of community
“When you try to understand something, you open yourself up,” says Leniie, whose son and daughter also attend the program. She believes her children are benefitting from learning English together with the other children. “My son, who’s 7, didn’t know any English. My 10-year-old daughter knows some words but can’t really speak it.”
Growing up in the Crimean Peninsula, Leniie is proud of her home and its beauty where you are “near the sea and the mountains and can find deserts and rivers.” She didn’t want to leave her home and family but eventually came to Canada at the end of August last year.
“I speak twice a day with my family. I miss them. I feel alone because of Ramadan, which is a time for family to eat and get together, but I have no family here,” explains Leniie.
Leniie’s children also found it difficult away from their close-knit extended family. “It was hard on them, on all of us. I think this program is good because they take first steps in English together. I think that is better for them to learn together.”
The School’s Out program helps the children to connect with one another and create a family in their new surroundings, something their parents feel as well as they chat together and share their stories.
Connecting with the children
Maniya, from MOSAIC, shares a story about a School’s Out program participant who, without the words to express his feeling of loss, found a different way to capture and convey his emotions. “We had a family come in for an assessment and they told us how they never thought they would have to leave their country and their home to save their lives. Then the war happened, and they had to start packing their things. When they got to Canada, they opened the luggage and find this smashed cardboard, like someone built something from the cardboard and hid it in the luggage. Everybody is asking what it is, and the son says it’s his; it’s their home. He had built their home out of cardboard and put it in the luggage to take it with them.”
In this program, it is not just the language barrier tutors must understand, it is also the trauma the children have experienced and finding ways to express themselves in uncertainty.
“I think the structure that we have works for both us and the students,” says Miranda, one of the four Friends of Simon tutors in this particular School’s Out program.
In today’s class, an image projected onto the screen asking what their favourite drink is shows various pictures of drinks with the English word underneath. The visual representation helps the children connect the object and word. They also utilize games and teams to encourage the children to interact and have fun while learning. “When you ask them a question, they don’t always know what it means, even though they’ve heard the word before, so pairing it with an image, we found it really helps their comprehension and memorization of the new vocabulary they’re being exposed to,” says Miranda.
Since its start a few months ago, many have already noted the improvement in the participants’ English understanding. “They’re more confident asking for things they need instead of just using Google Translate all the time. They will try and ask for things in full sentences, like going to the bathroom or asking for water,” remarks Miranda. “They have more confidence in everything.”
Settling into their new homes
When families first come to Canada and connected with the Settlement staff at MOSAIC, they had a lot of questions. “In the beginning when they come, of course they are very worried because they don’t speak English and they don’t have work. You see their face with lots of questions and worrying,” comments Maniya. “We involved them in lots of programming, lots of workshops, and we connect them to the English classes.”
It is this hub of community support, resources, and centralized programming like School’s Out has helped the families connect with one another and the communities they find themselves residing. As part of that hub, the School’s Out program offers the children an opportunity to accustom themselves to their new surroundings, practice their English, and connect with caring adult mentors.
As the School’s Out session nears an end, the parents finish their conversations in the lounge. Both groups start to merge and snippets of Ukrainian and English intermingle. Everyone seems cheerful and happy as they head out the doors, eager to return next week.
Thanks to United Way BC’s School’s Out Program, made possible by generous donors, these families and their children have a better chance at adjusting to their new communities. Together they find solace and companionship as they navigate their new lives in New Westminster. To support similar initiatives, please visit Here. For joy.