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Lost in translation: the biggest language barrier for families of newcomers navigating the school system


HALIFAX, NS – Nour Al Masri was so excited to go back to school that she couldn’t sleep the night before.

She hugged her new backpack to her as she lay in bed, imagining what her first day of school would be like. His younger brother Aktham proudly said he was the only sibling who didn’t take his new backpack to bed.

Parents are happy that their five children have the opportunity to go to school. But the school year is still a stressful time for the Syrian family who arrived in Halifax almost three years ago.

“The school sent us the list of supplies and we didn’t know what to buy,” said Mohammad Al Masri, Nour’s father.

Mohammad and his wife Fatema speak very little English and Google Translate, Fatema says, is useless most of the time.

Determining what supplies to obtain is a task made more difficult by the language barrier for newcomer families with school-aged children. Communicating with the school bus or principal when a child cannot make it to school can also become a burden with no one to help.

During their first year in Halifax, poor communication nearly cost Fatema and Mohammad their children.

‘It was too much’

At the time, the family found themselves between a rock and a hard place when Nour fell ill and was hospitalized. Mohammad had to be with her in the hospital, leaving Fatema, who was pregnant with their fifth child, alone to care for Aktham and her younger sisters Salsabeel and Rital.

“I was new to the country. I didn’t know anyone, ”Fatema said.

Mohammad’s absence meant that Fatema was solely responsible for taking the children to school. The family’s efforts to find them a seat on the school bus were unsuccessful. With Rital being a toddler and Fatema suffering from exhaustion, the transit trip to school seemed impossible on some days.

“It’s not that we don’t want the kids to go to school. We were so happy that they could go, ”Mohamad said. “(But) there were days when we couldn’t take them.”

An interpreter who has worked with the family in the past called the school to explain why the children were not coming. But Fatema was able to tell that something got lost in the translation when told that child protection could step in.

“I was having a hard time… but instead of giving me hope, they were disappointing me. It was too much, ”Fatema said.

It wasn’t until Fatima went to her children’s school and met YMCA school worker Zobeida Al-Zobeidy that the confusion was cleared up.

“They have helped us a lot. Without them, I don’t know what our situation would have been.

Al-Zobeidy is now the family’s lifeline at school, Mohammad said, and his presence is important to many Syrian families around him.

She was the first person they thought of when they needed someone to translate the list of school supplies and they weren’t disappointed. Fatema said she was relieved when Al-Zobeidy sent them photos of objects whose names they did not recognize.

She was also one of the few resources the family could access to understand the ever-changing public health information and school guidelines throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Gebremariam family said they did not have access to a laptop when schools went online at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. From left to right: Awet, Okuba, Temesgen, Habtom, Filmawit and Marhat. – Nebal Snan

A lifeline for parents

The YMCA School Settlement Program is a resource for newcomer families who have navigated the school system since 1992. The program, which began as a homework club, has expanded to include 17 workers in 37 schools in the Halifax Regional Municipality.

Settlement officers work in schools during the day, providing a link between parents and their children’s school. A worker could be responsible for one or more schools depending on the number of newcomer children.

Almost 1,000 clients are enrolled in the program for 2021, according to Achala Hewaarachchi, acting coordinator of the program.

“Language is the most common barrier for many of the newcomer families we welcome,” she said.

The technology gap has also been a drag for families registering their children this school year. Hewaarachchi said school staff worked with clients throughout the online registration process and explained the necessary documents.

No computer for the classroom

Lack of access to computers, Wi-Fi, and the knowledge required to use them put many families in a difficult position during the pandemic.

Habtom Gebremariam’s family were among those who had no computers when schools went online in 2020. Originally from Eritrea, they were refugees in Ethiopia before coming to Halifax in February 2019.

The YMCA provided them with two laptops that the children used to go to class and do their homework. The only remaining obstacle was the spotty Wi-Fi, which only seemed to work well in the living room.

“My dad also had an online course… So we were all here. We couldn’t hear what my teacher was saying, and they couldn’t hear what their teacher was saying, ”said Filmawit, the eldest daughter in the family.

Laptops came in handy when Darinka Kapor, a worker at the Gebremariams school, invited them to join an online book club to help newcomer children improve their English.

The children now share a laptop. The limited number of laptops, which were donated to the YMCA a few years ago, means many families aren’t getting them, Kapor said.

She said more donations are needed to meet demand.

Nebal Snan is a reporter for the Local Journalism Initiative, a federally funded post.


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