For some immigrant and refugee families, back to school in a pandemic comes with additional stressors


The ongoing global pandemic has filled the start of the 2020 school year with more apprehension than usual, but for refugees and new immigrants who are trying to navigate an unfamiliar school system in addition to the new rules, it’s been especially tough. 

Port Moody, B.C.’s Lama Alrakad came to Canada from Syria two years ago. She says her son Limar, 9, is feeling especially isolated after spending six months away from the school system. 

“He became so shy. I started to be very worried about his mental health​​​​​​,” said Alrakad, who has decided to send her son back to in-class instruction after much consideration.” I saw how sad he was.”

Alrakad says she was also worried her son would forget English and otherwise fall behind the longer he stayed at home.

“We don’t have the same education system back home in my country. I have no idea about the education system here in Canada,” she said, adding she had tried to help her son with online assignments, but it was tough.

“We don’t want him to be behind all of [his school friends].”

Classrooms are pictured prepped prior to the first day of school Vancouver, British Columbia on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Alrakad’s story is not unusual. 

Staff at the Pacific Immigrant Resources Society, a Vancouver-based non-profit that helps vulnerable immigrant and refugee women, say they have increased their outreach and support programs to coincide with the start of the school year. 

Patricia Lomelli​​​​​​, a child-care co-ordinator with the non-profit, says while immigrants and refugees represent a broad category of people, some newcomers to Canada are struggling to understand the school system, let alone make decisions related to the pandemic.

“They’re getting all these emails and all these instructions and they actually need more support,” Lomelli said. 

It’s further complicated by the fact that many newcomers are working in essential sector roles — in health care, as front-line staff — and need to keep working in order to make ends meet.

“They’re basically juggling financial [obligations to] meet their basic needs, and now with the school year approaching, they don’t know what to do.”

Valerie Lai, who also works at the non-profit, says those with large families or elderly relatives living at home are worried how each child’s learning cohort will expand the family bubble as their children go back to different grades.

Language and digital literacy are other barriers. 

“They don’t understand the English. And even if they understand what [an email] says, they don’t understand what it means, what the options are because it’s not in their own language,” Lai said, adding some families don’t have the resources to choose online schooling. 

Both the Vancouver and Surrey school districts have case workers and staff dedicated to help transition newly arrived families into the school system. The pandemic has forced some changes and adjustments.

Candy Marvel-Metcalfe, a school settlement worker in Surrey, B.C., says working with families has been challenging since the pandemic hit. (Eva Uguen-Csenge/CBC)

Candy Marvel-Metcalfe, a school settlement worker in Surrey, says since everything has to be done online, tasks that took 20 minutes can take over an hour during the pandemic. 

“A lot of families I work with … come from refugee camps and so they have never learned computer skills,” she said.  

“There are families that are still struggling to adapt to these new changes.”

Lai says for some vulnerable families facing numerous barriers, it can feel like there isn’t much of a choice about returning to school.

“They don’t have someone to look after their kids at home. They have to go outside for work, or they are not able to help their child at home,” she said.

“They are putting their trust in the public school system.”

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