When refugees arrive in Surrey two pieces of information are indispensable: Directions to the nearest food bank and how to find their way to the ELL Welcome Centre on King George Boulevard.
The food bank’s importance is obvious for people existing on government assistance that won’t keep them adequately fed, clothed and housed.
But the ELL (English Language Learner) centre is what they need in order to figure out Canada and what they have to do to become Canadians.
The Al-Sabsabi family — five siblings and parents — who fled the war in Syria arrived in Surrey in 2016 with hardly any words of English between them.
Food and shelter was what they needed to survive, but a new language would be needed to thrive.
“It’s hard for people coming into a different culture not knowing the language and customs,” says Zainab Sourour, an Arabic interpreter and English teacher at the centre operated by the Surrey school district.
“That’s why the Bridge Program we have here is so important for their future.”
The program teaches them English and gives them a crash course on Canadian values and culture. This is achieved by taking them on tours and field trips to acquaint them with life here.
It is one of the programs supported by the Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School campaign. This year the centre is seeking $6,900 to help families like the Al-Sabsabis settle in quickly.
The centre is also seeking $5,000 in emergency funds to help families without sufficient food or in need of bus fare or other help.
In Syria the Al-Sabsabi family lived a comfortable life in Homs. The father, Abdul Nasser, owned his own bakery but the war forced them over the border into Jordan and into a refugee camp for three years until they were accepted as refugees by Canada.
So how effective is the Bridge program?
Well, sitting next to Sourour is one of her star pupils, 20-year-old Mohamad Al-Sabsabi, who went from a standing start with no English three years ago, to a Grade 12 graduation in June with 88 credits — eight more than necessary for a pass.
He’s now on the threshold of entering Kwantlen Polytechnic University to study health sciences with the intention of transferring to UBC to become a dentist.
“I saw him every single day and he worked hard to learn English,” says Sourour.
“I needed a lot of help,” admits Mohamad, who is now a fluent English speaker.
“The Bridge program gave me confidence so I could go to school and also helped me build friendships. One of the most important parts was going on field trips. They took us to places we’d never be able to afford like the Vancouver Aquarium, Science World, the Burnaby Art Gallery, the museum in Vancouver.
“It helped us learn about the country.”
His father’s health has failed so he and his older brother are supporting the family by working in a bakery. His mother, who was learning English at the centre, has had to abandon classes so she can stay at home and care of her husband.
“We give them enough English to get them started on their journey,” says Sourour, herself a refugee.
“These are people who have had to leave everything behind who come here with nothing.”
Mohamad nods in agreement: “Without the Bridge program I don’t know what we would have done.”
By Gerry Bellett (firstname.lastname@example.org)