Karen Fabris says Edmonton Catholic School's One World . . . One Center has been providing a one-stop welcome for all newcomers to city schools since 2012.

WCR PHOTO | THANDIWE KONGUAVI

Karen Fabris says Edmonton Catholic School's One World . . . One Center has been providing a one-stop welcome for all newcomers to city schools since 2012.

February 8, 2016
THANDIWE KONGUAVI
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

If any agency was prepared for a wave of Syrian refugee families to arrive in Canada, it is Edmonton Catholic Schools' One World . . . One Centre.

With a newly-made holy door at the welcome centre declaring, "Let the children come to me," assistant principal Karen Fabris and her team were not sent scrambling as news hit of the refugee crisis.

"We've been welcoming all, for years and years and years - any families and those in need for years already," she said. "So it's who we are as a district."

Since opening its doors in 2012 in the former St. Patrick School, the centre for newcomers has welcomed more than 4,000 students and families to Edmonton Catholic Schools, including 400 refugees from all over the world.

To date, 34 Syrian refugee students have been placed in schools throughout the district across grade levels, most of them arriving in December and January. Taking in up to 24 students in a day, the centre now runs like a well-oiled machine.

"When the family comes in to see us, we try to make sure they are in school that afternoon or the next morning," said Fabris.

The students are not dropped off at school and left by themselves in the back of the class until the teacher has one-on-one time with them.

Their educational backgrounds range from children who were born in refugee camps and have never attended school, to students who have attended school throughout their lives with professional parents who continued reading with their children even while displaced.

"Every family is different regardless of where they're coming from and regardless of background," said Fabris.

"No story is the same; no background is the same. So we have to treat every student as an individual. To lump them together as a group and to say, 'This is the need of the Syrians,' is not what we're doing. We have to look at each as an individual."

When a family arrives at the school they have been registered, and each student has been assessed one-on-one with an experienced educator according to Alberta Education's English as a second language benchmarks.

Their teacher will know what they can read and write in English, and what their English listening and speaking abilities are. They are ready to start programming from the first day, said Fabris.

"They walk through that door in the right classes on the right route for success," she said.

Each student is given a United Way Tools for School backpack which includes pens, papers, a water bottle and lunch kit.

"It just makes for a much more positive start when you know you have what you need and you're not being singled out as 'I don't have a pencil,'" said Fabris. "Rather than going to the school and then sitting in a class not having them, they're walking in, head held high, 'I've got everything I need.'"

PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT

English as a second language consultants constantly provide professional development for teachers in the district. With 8,599 English language learners in the district, they are the fastest growing part of the student population, making up 21.4 per cent.

Sensitivity is built into all professional development programs offered by the centre so the teachers also understand where the children are coming from.

For Syrian refugee students, the centre's religious and social studies consultants have put together a package of information for school staff about the Syrian refugee crisis and why it happened.

The resource is available for district staff on the district's portal site. It includes videos prescreened by consultants for teachers to show their students about what has caused the crisis and why families must leave their home country.

RECREATION PASSES

In addition to school supplies, the centre also provides each family with information for bus routes, public libraries, City of Edmonton recreation passes and brochures for job opportunities.

"We're working with a group of people who have had to leave their home country and everything they know, so the most rewarding part is to make them feel welcome, answer the questions they have, and provide the support they need so they feel that Canada is their new country," said Fabris.

The centre, created to be a wraparound service for new families, also houses a federally funded Language Instruction for Newcomer to Canada (LINC) program for adults, and the Mosaic program offered by the Early Learning Department of Edmonton Catholic Schools for newcomer families with pre-school children.

CALGARY PROGRAM

The Calgary Catholic School District has a similar wraparound service centre, called the St. John Reception Centre, which welcomes all students and families who are new to Canada and Calgary Catholic schools.

Karen Ryhorchuk, a district spokesperson, said the centre aims to provide a "holistic, one-stop shop to ease the transition into Canadian life."

"It's not just the student, it's the family," said Ryhorchuk.

To date, the Calgary district has registered 39 students from Syria or Iraq this year.

LITTLE WARNING

In the Edmonton Archdiocese, the refugee students that have arrived so far have been privately sponsored, largely by parishes in collaboration with Catholic Social Services.

When the wave of government-sponsored refugees will arrive is not yet known, said Fabris. Even CSS is sometimes only alerted hours ahead of their arrivals. But when they do arrive, the process is in place.