LINC Reflections: Transformation through Storytelling in an EAL Classroom


By Theresa Howell

[This article was first printed in the Winter 2016 issue of TEAL News.]

“…we live in story, we act in story, we remember in story; storytelling echoes our humanness.” (Randall, 1995)

It is through the telling of stories and the listening that I have learned about how important story can be for breaking down barriers. In my classroom, I have witnessed many adult lives from around the globe. As an EAL instructor for a federally funded settlement English language program, I have had newcomer students that range from recent refugees from war torn regions to skilled immigrant workers from first world locations. Within the refugee population, many stories have crossed my path that could rivet the average person’s attention and immobilize their senses. As a child from a diverse life of circumstance as well as being an empathetic human being, I have learned that listening with intention and no judgement is imperative. Years of training and work in the Child and Youth Care field mixed with an anthropology undergraduate degree has allowed me some background into what is required and needed within these storied disclosures. As counselors we were taught to be present and listen. Also as an ongoing anthropological practitioner, the incorporation of cultural relativism whereby a person suspends any ethnocentric judgement in order to appreciate and understand other cultures (O’Neil, 2013), is important. It is one of the main tenets in cultural anthropology studies. Therefore, I stand present in quiet resolve while holding no judgement allowing the stories to unfold. For me, as educator, this is critical.

As I say this, I reflect on an adult refugee student who came from Iraq via Dubai. I’m sharing her story here. Her name was Sherry. She was a pretty young lady with hazel coloured doe-like eyes. Her strawberry blond hair and petite stature hid a woman whose mental strength was twenty times her physical size. At the time we met, she was verging on twenty eight years old; two years older than my eldest daughter but many life time’s apart. Actually, she wasn’t in my class but the class level below ours. However, every Thursday we had a “Conversation Club” whereby the Level 4 and level 5 students would come together to talk about cultural events and other issues that stimulated them to speak in a more relaxed context. The instructors and local volunteers alternated weekly facilitation roles for these conversation circles. During these times, one of the two instructors would sit in with a group while the other instructor would float from group to group monitoring the volunteers’ involvement.

From previous interactions, I gleaned some specific information about Sherry via another instructor. “She is so difficult. She spouts up about being Christian when others are talking about their Islamic beliefs, it disturbs the other students.” This seemed to be the instructor’s way of saying she didn’t want any religious tension in her classroom. I realized in this moment that something was awry and started building bridges of trust with Sherry. Each day that she arrived to school, I would greet her with a smile and morning salutation to let her know her presence was appreciated and welcomed. As time wore on she took time to stop and hold some small chit chat before going into her classroom. However, it was the one Conversation Club day that really broke through the phantom barrier into a new sense of connectedness. We were in our groups; Sherry and four other students were in the one I was facilitating this particular Thursday morning. We were discussing the upcoming Remembrance Day holiday and its meaning. We opened up the discussion with questions for the students to ponder and reflect upon thereby initiating conversation. One of the questions touched on their opinion about war. As the responses moved around the table the majority of the students responded in the standard way of stating that “it is horrific and wished we could all live peacefully.” As it came around to Sherry, I could see her eyes gloss over with tears. She started to say, “Every day, I thank GOD I’m in Canada”. As a couple of tears found their way down her round, rosy cheeks, I grabbed the tissue box and quietly put it between us. Quietly, I responded with a reassuring “yes, we are all thankful you are here too, Sherry.” As she wiped the tears from her cheeks and eyes, she went on to tell her story of her last day in her small village in southern Iraq. Her family was locked inside their home. “My mother, father and brother were crouched down while the shelling and gunfire were ringing out in the streets outside our home. We were Christian.” A primary Islamic state was the desired preference. As the gunfire got closer, her father demanded that she run and hide. Being a respectful daughter, she obliged. As she shrunk and hid inside an underground dugout that their family had made, “I heard heavy footsteps above. Then, a flurry of screams and shots being fired rang out. This moment lasted forever” she said, “Once all the noise stopped, I looked carefully from my underground hideout. When I crawled out of the space from where I was hiding, I found my mother, father and brother lying dead in pools of blood that surrounded their bodies. I ran over to my mother and held her bloody head in my hands and cried to God. WHY!!??. Later on that evening, once the guns were silent, my uncle came by and whisked me away. We made our way southeast to Dubai.” As she unfurled her story, our group began to realize that none of us could reconcile with this set of circumstances thrust upon a young girl. As an educator/counsellor, I knew I needed to sit mindfully attending to this moment and that was the best action I could take. She went on to talk of how through many years of living in Dubai she soon learned to find her way independently. It was then that she had applied to Canada as a refugee. She knew if she was able to start a new life somewhere far away from the memory that haunted her, it would allow her some solace. She told us that when she was on the plane to Canada, she cried. She established that they were not tears of sadness but of happiness. She knew that she was given this gift as she said “from GOD.” No matter the reasons, she was finally finding happiness in a life that had its lion’s share of sadness. As she wound down, I pulled her close and gave her the biggest hug. The only thing I could think to say was “you are such a brave young woman. Your honesty inspires me. Thank you.” We were all stunned by the story. It reshaped our perspective. From that day onwards to the moment Sherry left the program, new bonds between students were formed. The Muslim students were especially empathetic and a group of them would surround her at breaktime making an effort to build back the broken trust created by others.


O’Neil, Dennis (2013) Glossary of terms: Cultural relativity. What is Anthropology? Retrieved from

Randall, W. (1995). The stories we are: An essay on self-creation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Biographical Information

From the Winter 2016 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter:  Theresa K. Howell has been a LINC Instructor at ISSofBC for over eight years. At the time of writing this article, she was in the process of achieving her MA in Arts Education at SFU. This piece is from her thesis “Storied Lives; Storytelling and Change” and all names have been changed to protect people’s identities.


This article is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Original reference information:

Howell, T. K. (2016, Winter). Transformation through Storytelling in an EAL Classroom. TEAL News. Retrieved from


My Experience with the Syrian Refugees Landing in the Okanagan Valley


By Raafa Abdulla

[This article was first printed in the Spring 2016 issue of TEAL News.]

I have been very fortunate to volunteer with three organizations (Kelowna Islamic Center, Mission Creek Alliance church, and St Pius X church Refugee Committee) sponsoring six Syrian families. My experience was eye-opening, full of excitement and new challenges every day. Every sponsoring group took their role very seriously. They spent hours discussing and preparing a new life for the Syrian families. Some of them even asked me to contact the families while they were in Beirut, Lebanon and then they tracked the flights until their arrival in Kelowna, BC. I couldn’t believe the number of people who were willing to dedicate their time and money to help strangers. Everyone was treating the newcomers as his or her own family. I have been asked several times to talk about Syrian culture, food, and social traditions; everyone wanted to know how to approach the families faster. In return, once the Syrians settled, they were eager to learn about Canadian culture. I was very thrilled to feel as a bridge connecting two cultures.

Settling the new Syrian families could have been a challenge. However, most organizations were very successful, and the process was smooth. Many have divided their committee members into four groups: planning, transportation, education, and health. The planning group sets weekly plans—at least for the first month—and they look after the family’s needs. They also connect interpreters with the other groups. In the first two weeks, Syrian families are required to be in different places; they have to fill out some governmental papers (child tax benefit, provincial health insurance. etc.), open new bank accounts and register into English classes. Therefore, the transportation group is highly in demand during these days. The education group helped registering the parents into adult English classes and their kids into BC public schools. As more families arrived, many adult English classes were full and couldn’t accept new students immediately. As a result, some of the committee members became private English tutors until the public English classes became available. Some groups opened their own English classrooms. For example, the Kelowna Islamic Center is running classes every day to teach English and Canadian culture to Syrian mothers. Finally, the health group, most likely led by someone who has a medical/science background, is responsible for registering the family with a family doctor and looking after any family health issues.

I found every committee member and every volunteer to be very happy and excited to help the Syrian refugees. Everyone works with a smile and everyone knows what to do. Many groups in the community offered lots of free or reduced price services and items; such as motels, dental centres, and thrift stores.

Finally, I have noticed two main issues while working as a volunteer. First, the settlement process was much easier with fully (or partially) privately-sponsored refugees as compared to fully governmental-sponsored refugees. Even though the later group are financially secured, they don’t have specific people helping them. These families need to be assisted by the whole community. Some people have started creating Facebook pages to offer services or offer donations. The main issue is the communication between the two groups. All the services are offered in English and most Syrians can only speak Arabic. Another challenge is with the school English as an Additional (EAL) system. Most schools are prepared to accept EAL students who have some English skills. However, most of the Syrian students have no English skills and they are required to be taught the very beginning levels. In general, they learn very quickly and they show a high enthusiasm for learning. They are very motivated and willing to integrate and create more friends.

To sum up, this is some of my experience with the new Syrian families. I have been pleasantly astonished with the help and effort that the Okanagan Valley community provides to families who suffered from the war in Syria. One Syrian father once told me that Canada not only gave him a place to live but also granted him a new life. He said that he was dead and now (in Canada) he is alive again.

I am very thankful and I appreciate all the hard work that everyone is doing to help Syrians refugees. This experience makes me meet not only new people but also new real friends.

Biographical Information

From the Spring 2016 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter:  Raafa Abdulla holds an honour degree in medical biochemistry from the University of British Columbia. She was also a teacher candidate at Rutland Senior School, Kelowna, BC.  She has volunteered as an English-Arabic interpreter with several organization sponsoring new Syrian refugees, and she has also helped some Syrian children integrating into the BC school system.


This article is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Original reference information:

Abdulla, R. (2016, Spring). My experience with the Syrian Refugees landing in the Okanagan Valley. TEAL News. Retrieved from

Refugee Rights Day 2018


Refugee Rights Day 2018.png

We invite you to join BC TEAL’s Outreach and Awareness Campaign as we recognize Canada’s Refugee Rights Day and our role as EAL professionals in creating community through education. Utilize our Refugee Rights Day Lesson Activities and submit comments via the #EALaction hashtag on Twitter or Facebook.

You might also check out the webinar recordings from last year’s Refugee Rights Day.

We are looking forward to celebrating inclusion, community and diversity
in EAL classrooms with you!



From the newsletter: Refugee Rights Day – EAL Act!on



Image credit:

On April 4th, BC TEAL launched a nationwide campaign in celebration of Refugee Rights Day. This campaign connected the relationship between security of person to a sense of belonging and inclusion in our diverse communities – not just for refugees, but for all individuals. It included webinars and an activity package for teachers and was intended to highlight our commonalities and the importance of feeling safe and accepted for who we are.

How do you apply an intercultural lens to Refugee Rights Day? It starts with how people identify themselves and how they identify others. The EAL classroom provides a primary community, and a good place to start strengthening that sense of community is by getting to know each other. We often don’t know much about each other’s cultural background, ways of doing things or personal histories. In a classroom context, teachers making time and space for the group to be curious about and open to each other is key to modelling and growing intercultural sensitivity as well as to prepare learners to find greater acceptance in the community at large. This ability is as important as language if our goal is to promote healthy, inclusive and diverse communities.

These themes seem weighty, but the activities provided in BC TEAL’s Refugee Rights Day Activity Package were intended to foster a feeling of commonality while at the same time acknowledging difference in an enjoyable way. They also aimed to raise awareness of what inclusion, community and diversity mean to our students and to explore how we can “do” these in our daily interactions.

Teacher comments:

Jennifer: “Initially, students wondered so why are we talking about this? Yes, it was Refugee Rights Day, but these are all broader themes. Students said ‘we’re really glad we’re learning this. It helps me think differently. It’s important to learn about’. It was neat – the next day we had a refugee student enter the class and is now a part of our classroom community.”

Augusta: “I like to share my own identity story as someone who came to a new country. It doesn’t matter what the reason is for you being here. You are here now and it’s a difficult time, but there are commonalities… I wanted this activity package to be about all of us.”

Debra: “The whole experience was very positive… It gave a better sense of what diversity is and how we can be included because we do have things in common. It opened the door to other possibilities, to meeting new people and other Canadians. That we can see beyond what’s on the outside.”

Leanna: ‘The student’s especially liked being divided into groups to work on their poster board that reflected what they deemed as “Social Inclusion”. They liked the creativity, the visuals, the variety and freedom of choice, cutting, pasting and overall enjoyment of working together to create a positive message as a group.”

Tanya: “I did have refugees in the class and they were okay with the pictures. I felt comfortable because my parents were refugees also, so I talked about my parents living in a camp for 3 years. I thought it was nice to finish with an optimistic picture – Welcome to Canada!”

To access the package and accompanying image bank, please visit Refugee Rights Day: Take Act!on. Good luck on your intercultural journey and, if you do use the materials, we’d love to hear from you.

For the full article, please see the Summer 2017 issue of the BC TEAL Newsletter.

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAQXAAAAJGZiYTFmNDEzLWU4NjctNDAzMC05YTQ2LWUzMjg4ZjA1Y2YyYgTaslim Damji is the developer of BC TEAL’s Refugee Rights Day package. She has an MA from King’s College, London and two decades of international teaching, teacher training, and research experience. Taslim is the manager of Intercultural Trainings through MOSAIC Works.