Teaching Syrian Refugees in a Small Community

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by Lian Clark

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

It all started several months ago. I was taking the TESL program at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops. The program was about to come to an end, and I was feeling the pressure to look for a teaching position. When a job posting to teach Syrian refugees came through BC TEAL’s website, I was really interested. With a background of helping immigrants to settle and integrate into the local community, I got the job. The position involved developing and delivering an eight-week English as an additional language (EAL) course to a group of newly arrived Syrian refugees in a small town in the British Columbia interior. The primary aim of the course was to increase their English skills so that they could integrate into their new community.

The location of this EAL course may be a small town, but it is definitely not a small community. Shortly after the arrival of the first four Syrian families, local people realized that language was the key for them to settle in their new lives in Canada. Since there was no government support at the time, the community raised enough funds to hire a teacher through donations and fundraising. In addition to financial support, there were always two volunteers from the community attending classes, and groups of volunteers to look after the children while their parents were in the classroom.

Learning English was a matter of survival for those newly arrived refugees. They needed language skills to carry out daily tasks, to communicate with people in the local communities, to understand Canadian culture, to look for employment opportunities, and to train for a job. Learning about etiquette is always important. After conducting a thorough need analysis, I designed a course syllabus and planned for the first and subsequent lessons.

For my very first class, I planned to let my students know my expectations of them. Considering this group of students didn’t know much English, and all of them spoke Arabic as their first language, I decided to bring in an Arabic-speaking interpreter to make sure all the students understood my introduction to the program. With the help of the interpreter, I welcomed the students, introduced myself, and distributed a notebook and a binder to each student. I explained that there were no textbooks for the class, and the students would learn practical English that could be used in their own daily lives. I indicated that the class would often work in pairs or small groups to give students more opportunities to talk in English; however, if students were not ready to talk or say something in English, they could just listen for a while and participate silently by nodding their heads or pointing. Last but not least, I expected each student to speak in English during classes. They were only allowed to speak in Arabic at the beginning or at the end of each class, during the breaks. They could also speak in Arabic when they had questions or needed more information on something. Thanks to the interpreter, my expectations were clear to the students in the first class, and I did benefit from setting a respectful tone toward each individual and their culture; hence, the students would learn to respect, understand, and collaborate with each other. 

The program started with a group of eight students, who were actually four couples. The first day, they chose to sit beside their spouses. Naturally, whenever there was a question, there was a discussion between spouses in Arabic. I assigned them to sit with different students during the second class. Soon, the students began to make friends and got comfortable with each other. Obviously, Arabic was still frequently heard in the classroom. When students got used to the relaxed atmosphere in the classroom, something totally unexpected happened.

The second week of the program, a class discussion went out of control; there was a debate in Arabic between two male students. The wife of one of the male students also joined the discussion with an upsetting tone of voice. In a minute, the discussion heated up and turned into an argument. As the high volume of the voices extremely agitated both parties, I failed to intervene. When the husband asked to be excused, I gladly let him leave the classroom before his wife burst in tears. The class finished with me introducing key vocabulary such as “conflict” and “argument” to describe what had just happened; however, I knew I had to come up with a way to turn things around. The next day, both families came to class, but I could easily see that they were avoiding each other. That day happened to be the birthday of one of the students, so we had a little celebration. Before sharing the cake, I deliberately made some interaction between the two wives to break the ice a little. After having some treats, I started the conversation by addressing the conflict and confessing how helpless I felt as a teacher. I opened a discussion for solutions in situations like that and asked the students to work in groups. I particularly asked them to write down their ideas of classroom norms and rules on a poster. That activity went great with all students participating and giving opinions. My students were puzzled when I said that I was actually glad that there was an argument in the classroom. I explained how this conflict not only fostered new ideas, alternatives, and solutions, but most importantly it led to growth and change by building more synergy and cohesion among us. After the class, one of the classroom assistants shared the heartwarming moment she just witnessed outside the classroom: two Syrian men double-kissed each other on the cheek, and hugged. Peace arrived.

When reflecting on this teaching experience, one of the unexpected challenges was flexibility. During the interview, the hiring committee and I agreed that “being flexible” is an important component of this job; however, we totally underestimated the extent of that flexibility. The challenges I experienced were having toddlers in the classroom with their parents, interruptions by childminders for unexpected incidents, constantly preparing backup plans to meet the students’ various learning needs, etc. Adjusting plans was the most frequent challenge. For instance, I planned to show a video on popular culture. After a few minutes of viewing, I realized my students had difficulty in following the language and cultural information. I had to adjust my plan to include a study of the key vocabulary, an explanation of some cultural norms involved, and a discussion on the differences between popular culture in Canada and Syria. stretching flexibility, the impact of a spontaneous question or discussion on my students’ learning always delightfully surprised me. When I followed their needs and the flow of the class atmosphere, I was not only experiencing naturally emerging wonderful teaching moments, but also establishing my unique teaching style. Most importantly, I was establishing rapport with my students by showing my care for their learning and my effort in catering to their needs.

Thanks to the generosity of the community, the initial eight-week program was extended one more month, then another three months. It has been five months now, and the program is still running. Due to the one-year sponsorship agreement, which is coming to an end, some of my students are expected to find employment to support themselves. Even though they have made significant progress in the past five months, the language barrier would still be the biggest challenge for them to find suitable jobs. I expressed my concerns to a new friend I met through the BC TEAL Reginal Conference, and his wise insight into life has brought me some comfort:  “Desire for the best is never too ambitious; doing what is necessary to get there is important for achieving satisfaction” (Michael Wicks).

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

Lian Clark is a new member of BC TEAL. She is teaching community EAL programs in the BC Interior. She has taught EAL at private schools in China. Having a background as a settlement and integration counsellor supporting immigrants in BC communities, she is interested in language learning and cultural transition as well as teaching students of refugee and trauma backgrounds.

This article is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Original reference information:

Clark, L.  (2017, Winter). Teaching Syrian refugees in a small community. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/TEAL-News-Winter-2017.pdf

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