Recently arrived refugees

School is in for refugees now living in Qualicum Beach

Start of the new school year is extra special for children who were born in a refugee camp in Thailand

School District 69 will open its collective doors today to an estimated 4,270 students to begin the 2016-17 school year.

For four of those students, there has been a little extra preparation.

A refugee family sponsored by a Qualicum Beach support group will take its next step to assimilating into the Canadian culture this week when four of the family’s children enrol in local schools. The youths were all born in the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand during their parents’ stay of 20 years.

None of them speaks English, and the nearest interpreter is on the Lower Mainland.

“There’s no formula for this kind of thing,” said Corleen McKinnon, assistant principal at Qualicum Beach Elementary, which three of the students will attend. “Places like Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver, where they see a lot more refugees, they may have things figured out. But this is a rare occurrence in a community of our size. We feel privileged to have the opportunity to welcome them.”

The oldest son, P’yo yo, will attend Kwalikum Secondary School, while Myint Oo, Pyint Thu Zar and Hla Naing Oo will enrol at QBES, said Carrie Frampton, teacher at Qualicum Beach Elementary and head of the school’s student leadership group.

A younger daughter, Eh Nyaw Paw, will attend preschool at QBES.

“Nobody knows their ages, exactly,” said Frampton. “We’re guessing there’s sort of an 11 and 13 year-old, and the 16-year-old. We don’t really know. When these kids come to school it’s going to be very difficult to integrate; we’re going to have to do a lot of scaffolding.”

Anna Grieve, a core member of the 11-person Qualicum Refugee Sponsorship Group, is hopeful that school district personnel will be pleasantly surprised. She has worked with the family for seven weeks since its arrival in Canada, and has seen what she calls “tremendous skills” in the children’s adaptability and resilience.

“The only difference is that they may require more assistance,” Grieve said. “They’re very intelligent people. They’ve been isolated and haven’t had the experience of people here, right from conception. So, in one respect they have those skills, but they have some tremendous skills some of our kids don’t.

“I don’t think (the schools) will need to treat them with kid gloves.”

Both McKinnon and Frampton said the pace of the new students’ integration will be largely dependent upon how quickly they adapt and pick up English, and that school officials will be observing their progress closely. The elementary students will not attend today’s half-day orientation — which McKinnon said can be overwhelming even for returning students — and will spend Wednesday undergoing an academic assessment. They will actually begin attending classes Thursday and Friday on a half-day schedule, after which McKinnon said she would meet with the refugee committee to discuss the way forward.

“To the credit of the committee, we’ve been following their lead,” McKinnon said. “We’ve talked and made loose plans, but didn’t do too much ahead of time because we wanted to meet these kids and find out what their needs were.”

Frampton recently took students from her leadership group to the family’s home to meet with their incoming counterparts. She admitted the language barrier was problematic, although the two seven-year-olds connected well when the toys came out. She said the main focus for the school community would be making sure the new students feel welcome as they make the transition.

“I’m hoping our leadership group becomes the first sort of friendship group,” Frampton said. “We’ll have buddies for each of them, showing them around and staying with them at recess and lunch until they get into the classroom and make their own friends.

“They’ll be the front line.”

At Kwalikum Secondary, 16-year-old P’yo yo would be a Grade 11 student based on his age, but could be placed in grade 8 or 9 depending on his academic readiness. The one language he does share with many Canadian children is soccer, and Frampton said KSS athletic director Butch Gayton has agreed to absorb the cost of enrolling P’yo yo into the school’s Soccer Academy.

“As Butch said, ‘You don’t need language to play soccer’,” she said.

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