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Syrian Refugee's Education Was First Derailed By War, Then The COVID-19 Crisis

Aya Abou Rshd studies at home in Ottawa with a borrowed school laptop.
Aya About Rshd, 18, a Syrian newcomer whose education was interrupted by civil war, then the COVID-19 crisis.
Judy Trinh/New Canadian Media
Aya About Rshd, 18, a Syrian newcomer whose education was interrupted by civil war, then the COVID-19 crisis.

OTTAWA — For years, Aya Abou Rshd dreamed of returning to school, of reading books and writing stories. Of holding a pencil in her hands to calculate math equations. She made it to Grade 4 before her life in Damascus was decimated, before the Syrian civil war announced its arrival in her neighbourhood with a bombing on her street. She remembers her family of six squeezing their bodies into a bathtub as the windows in their home shattered around them.

That was in 2011, and it would be another eight years before Aya would set foot in a school again — only to have her academic pursuits derailed by the global COVID-19 pandemic.

“I miss my friends and I miss my teachers,” said Aya in an interview outside her home in Ottawa. “It’s boring.”

The 18-year-old arrived in Canada in September 2019 after her family was sponsored by a community group. Within two weeks, Aya and her three siblings were enrolled in school. After years of turmoil, their first months in Canada took on a comforting rhythm. In the morning, her parents would walk her younger siblings, Hala and Ibrahim, to their elementary school, while Aya and her older brother, Ahmad, 20, would take a bus to their high school. After classes, Aya would hang out with friends at a nearby mall, sometimes indulging in an Iced Capp from Tim Hortons.

This routine ended seven months after their arrival. The Ontario government shut down schools on March 13 to contain the coronavirus, just as Aya was learning about the states of matter in science class.

The Abou Rshd family. Emad Abou Rshd and his wife, Lamis, centre, with their children, from left clockwise: Aya, 18, Ibrahim, 11, Hala, 11, and Ahmad, 19.
Judy Trinh/New Canadian Media
The Abou Rshd family. Emad Abou Rshd and his wife, Lamis, centre, with their children, from left clockwise: Aya, 18, Ibrahim, 11, Hala, 11, and Ahmad, 19.

Aya’s father, Emad, gets emotional talking about the impact of COVID-19 on his family. The coronavirus makes him feel as though he’s gone backward in time. He’s already spent years in lockdown.

“I feel like when I live in Lebanon. I lived there for three years. I couldn’t go out and now it’s the same,” said Emad in short, simple sentences. When the words don’t come, he looks upward and makes small sweeping motions with his open hands as if to draw the missing words into his body. When the words don’t materialize, he resorts to Google Translate on his phone.

Syria’s civil war forced the Abou Rshds into a life of transience. They relied on relatives and friends to take them in, and took shelter in abandoned buildings only to be chased away by more shelling and gunfire as battlefronts moved. After military forces attempted to recruit Emad’s teenage son, the family fled to Lebanon in 2016, where their lives were confined to a one-bedroom apartment for three years.

Unable to secure official United Nations refugee status, they were considered “illegals,” and if caught by Lebanese authorities, the family would have been sent back to Syria.

In Ottawa, Emad is able to go for long bike rides and quick visits to the grocery store, but life feels directionless.

“I just want to go,” said Emad, thrusting his right arm forward, referring to a future that’s once again on hold.

Laptop lifeline

While other provinces closed schools indefinitely, the Ontario government used the pandemic to fast forward its goal of introducing more online learning into the curriculum and shifted all its elementary and high school students to virtual classrooms for the remainder of the academic year.

In March, the government set up a Learn at Home web portal, but thousands of disadvantaged students including the Abou Rshds couldn’t access the curriculum because they had no computers or tablets at home. In response, the Ministry of Education directed school administrators to loan out classroom laptop computers.

One month after the lockdown began, more than 200,000 Chromebook laptops and iPads were couriered to students, along with thousands of free Wi-Fi hotspots.

Three Chromebooks were delivered to the Abou Rshd family just before Ramadan started. One was to be shared between the younger kids, while the older siblings each got their own computers. For the first time in weeks, they were able to see their friends over Google Meet video calls, while their teachers used virtual classrooms to check in on how they were coping.

Sixty-five per cent of students at Ridgemont High School in Ottawa are refugees or new immigrants.
Judy Trinh/New Canadian Media
Sixty-five per cent of students at Ridgemont High School in Ottawa are refugees or new immigrants.

Aya and Ahmad take Grade 9 courses at Ridgemont High School in Ottawa. Of its 800 students, 65 per cent are refugees or new immigrants. Ridgemont is located in one of the poorest postal codes in Canada’s capital. The school acts as a central hub for newcomer families and where they first turn to for information about city health programs and directions to the food bank. Principal Rachelle Sintic said it was important for Ridgemont to continue providing this information during the pandemic.

“A student’s wellbeing is number one right now. If the wellbeing isn’t taken care of, the academics can’t really happen,” she said. Sintic wants her teachers to flag student concerns that come up during online meetings so that Ridgemont’s multicultural liaisons can help.

“I know that a lot of our kids don’t live in a large space and have quite a few siblings. I worry about the amount they can focus on their work, versus the amount of support they need to give their own parents to help out with siblings,” said Sintic.

Aya About Rshd studies at home.
Judy Trinh/New Canadian Media
Aya About Rshd studies at home.

Heather Carmichael, 42, is a teacher at Sawmill Creek Public School where Aya’s younger brother and sister are enrolled. Carmichael teaches a special English literacy development class for Grade 8 refugee students. Some of her students have never been in school. They couldn’t read in their first language. Some didn’t learn how to count.

“You need to go that extra mile to make them feel safe, valued and supported,” said Carmichael. But that’s not easy to do over the internet. She’s found virtual learning a vexing and plodding process that loses much in translation.

“(Pre-pandemic,) if I want to show them a website, I would project it onto the whiteboard and walk them through it and they would open their Chromebooks and follow along. But now they’ll log on to a website and they can’t read what the buttons are saying and don’t know what to click.”

Carmichael has had to find creative ways to explain hard to grasp concepts. Recently, she posted a video of herself making an apple crumble. While talking about preheating the oven, she introduced the concept of prefixes and suffixes. She used a measuring spoon to segue into discussing fractions, then she asked her students to post their own cooking videos to practice speaking English.

Carmichael’s students all have different levels of understanding, so teaching them all at once doesn’t work. During the pandemic, she’s asked her students to sign up for a 30-minute block each day so she can work with them individually or in pairs. It wasn’t be enough to cover the full curriculum.

“We have to remember that these are families that we can learn from. They are survivors.”

- Tim Pearson, principal

“It’s going to set everybody back in September. There will be gaps,” said Tim Pearson, Sawmill Creek’s principal. “Even though we are doing learning at home, there is no way we can cover the full curriculum because we’ve missed all this time in class. Learning at home is no substitute for the quality of education (students) can receive in a classroom.”

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board is planning for a hybrid model that blends classroom instruction with online learning when school resumes in September. Half the students attend school on Monday and Tuesday while Wednesday is reserved for deep cleaning. The other half of students attend classes on Thursday and Friday.

Pearson said he is confident his teachers will be able to meet students where they’re at in the fall, and bring them up to speed with the new online skills they learned during the lockdown. He said his teachers have used a variety of apps from FlipGrid to Google Meet to YouTube to connect with students, and that they will continue to use those new technical skills when they return to the classroom.

Renewed sense of purpose

As for the newcomer students who make up one third of his school, Pearson is confident in their resilience and their ability to overcome adversity.

“We have to remember that these are families that we can learn from. They are survivors. They have lived in refugee camps and their circumstances were dire ... These newcomers are better prepared to deal with the pandemic than we are.”

Back at home, the borrowed school laptop, which she gets to keep until September, has given Aya a renewed sense of purpose. She helps her parents set up Zoom video calls with their Canadian sponsors so they can practise reading and conversing in English.

Having passed her high school courses, she’s now trying to apply for a summer job online. She hopes to eventually become a journalist or perhaps a lawyer, but for now, she’s looking forward to catching up with friends over Iced Capps while staying two metres apart.

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