AIDS and Health Education Award: Community English Classes for Women

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by Amea Wilbur

[This article was first printed in the Winter 2017 issue of TEAL News.]

Rima arrived in Canada in February 2016. She came with her husband and four children, her youngest child is 4 months old. Her husband just started language classes. Rima really wants to learn English so she can help her children, make friends, and participate in Canadian society. She is lonely and wishes she had family close by to help her. Her son Sayid has a disability and she knows she will have to attend many doctors appointments with him. She sometimes feels like she is back in Syria listening to the bombs go off. She has many dreams for her family and particularly her children. She would really like to attend Language Instruction for Newcomer (LINC) to Canada classes but can’t because her children are too young.

Between November 4th, 2015 and June 27th, 2016, 28,755 refugees arrived in Canada, many of them like Rima. They fled war, persecution, torture, and faced multiple losses before arriving on our shores. This story is based on the many stories I heard working with refugee women. There are thousands of mothers like Rima, who have come to Canada to make a better life for their children.

For someone like Rima, settling here can seem insurmountable. Rima does not know the language to be able to speak to her children’s teachers, clinic staff, or dentist. She does not have family or friends here to support her. She does not understand the education system and worries about what her children will learn here. She knows how valuable it is to learn English. She wants to attend government funded language programs called Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC). She can’t attend until her youngest child reaches 18 months. She is worried because she also knows if she misses more than two LINC classes a month, she may be asked to leave. Rima also struggles with flashbacks, difficulty concentrating, and memory. Rima continues to have a lot of hope too. She believes her children will have different opportunities than she had in Syria after the war.

In 2016, Pacific Immigrant Resources Society (PIRS) was fortunate enough to be awarded the BC TEAL AIDS and Health Award for curriculum development to support refugee women like Rima who have experienced trauma and are struggling to find their way here. I would like to take this opportunity to share with you how the award was used and the ways we are trying to respond to the needs of women like Rima.

In late 2015, PIRS saw a need to find a way to support newly arrived refugee women and their young children. My own doctoral research identified some of the barriers that students who have experienced trauma faced in accessing government funded English as an additional language (EAL) classes, in particular LINC classes. Some of the barriers include lack of childcare space, attendance expectations, lack of understanding about the impact of trauma on learning, assessment practices, and not feeling ready for a LINC class. 

We at PIRS felt we might be able to fill a gap and respond to the needs to of refugee women. We have 41 years of experience working with refugee and immigrant women. PIRS was not looking to replace the LINC classes but to provide language support for women who are not quite ready to enter LINC classes. In April 2015, we piloted an EAL class for refugee women, specifically women who have experienced trauma, at Edmonds Community School. We had 20 women and 21 children attend the program.

Our program and curriculum were different than the LINC program. We wanted to be more flexible and responsive to the needs of the participants. Women, in the pilot class, brought their babies, and we were able to provide childcare for the older children. Many of the women had experienced violence and trauma, and some have never been in an educational setting before. Being comfortable and feeling safe is was the primary goal of the instructor.

We used the following guiding themes in developing the curriculum:

Control: Trauma can rob people of their sense of control and power over their lives. One of the first steps in supporting people with trauma is to provide a sense of safety and to equip them with the language to identify their feelings and experiences. Our curriculum covered language around feelings. We also developed lesson plans that addressed mental wellness and personal well-being.

Connection: Trauma can destroy the bonds between an individual, their family, and their community. Therefore, one means of supporting students who have experienced trauma is facilitating connection with others. Our curriculum and classes offered opportunities for women to get to know each other and develop friendships in the classroom. As well, they learned about the education system, parenting in the Canadian context, how to best support their children, and social services.

Meaning: Trauma can dismantle one’s sense of value in the world. Students need to gain a new sense of self and hope—so they can look toward the future. Our curriculum did this by having the women think about their own interests, passion, and hopes.

BC TEAL has shown leadership by supporting the needs of refugees. I am honoured and proud that BC TEAL funded our curriculum and program. This funding has helped to ensure that women like Rima are given the much needed support and opportunity to engage in our communities. PIRS is hopeful that the continued support for refugee women, such as Rima, can continue. In this time when we are witness to divisive and social strain, it is essential that we continue to create innovative, and inclusive programs and curriculum. Our students can offer as much to Canadian society as it can offer them.

Biographical Information (From the Winter 2017 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter)

Dr. Amea Wilbur completed her Doctorate at UBC looking at how to make government funded language for adults more inclusive for students who have experienced trauma. She has facilitated numerous workshops on how to support students who have experienced trauma in the EAL classroom. She, along with Diana Jeffries, created “ Beyond Trauma: Language Learning Strategies for New Canadians Living with Trauma” through LISTN. Dr. Wilbur currently works for Pacific Immigrant Resources Society as the Program Manager.

This article is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Original reference information:

Wilber, A.  (2017, Winter). Community English classes for women. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/TEAL-News-Winter-2017.pdf

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