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Syrian refugees Nada Alkhamis, 13, and her brother, Abdulrahman, 15, practise writing their names in Surrey, B.C., on Wednesday. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Syrian refugees Nada Alkhamis, 13, and her brother, Abdulrahman, 15, practise writing their names in Surrey, B.C., on Wednesday. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Syrian refugees in Surrey transition from conflict to the classroom Add to ...

At the back of a classroom in a low-rise Surrey office complex, Nada Alkhamis, 13, is learning to write her name in English.

Her 15-year-old brother, Abdulrahman, is beside her, using coloured markers to decorate his carefully written name on a sheet of paper that will go into his binder at Surrey’s English Language Learner Welcome Centre. It is the siblings’ first day at the centre. Surrey teacher Audrey Nolte likes to keep those early drawings so students can look at them in a couple of months to see how far they have come.

“As soon as you put them in a normal classroom setting where other kids are doing regular work, they follow along,” Ms. Nolte said.

The welcome centre is a key piece of community infrastructure designed to help children such as Nada and Abdulrahman – both government-assisted refugees from Syria – move from lives marred by uncertainty and conflict to a classroom routine.

The centre is particularly important in Surrey, which to date is the top destination for government-assisted Syrian refugees in British Columbia, including the largest number of school-aged children. The school district has 67 to date, compared with fewer than a dozen in Vancouver.

The Liberal government recently reached its goal – announced in last year’s federal election campaign – of bringing 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada, and has said another 15,000 applications are complete or under way.

In British Columbia, 1,522 government-assisted Syrian refugees had arrived as of Feb. 29, says Chris Friesen, director of settlement services with the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. Another 2,000 or so are expected by the end of 2016.

On arrival, refugees are placed in temporary housing, including hotels, in Metro Vancouver. To date, settlement agencies have also been trying to line up permanent accommodation. As of Feb. 29, Surrey was the top destination, with 283 people (who make up 65 families) finding homes or apartments in the city.

Surrey is the No. 1 settlement spot even though it has limited room in its schools, Mr. Friesen said.

“Surrey does not have a lot of capacity, but that’s where we are seeing the greatest offers of housing,” Mr. Friesen said. “So there’s a disconnect at times, but there’s nothing we can do about that because the operation at this point is driven by permanent housing.”

A Surrey School District spokesman said the district has been able to accommodate students and that only a handful have had to attend schools outside their catchment area.

In coming months, refugees are expected to go to communities outside the Lower Mainland. Prince George is expected to take 10 families, and Kelowna, Penticton, Vernon and Kamloops are expected to take five families each.

In Abbotsford, 166 refugees have been temporarily placed in a hotel and are expected to be housed in the municipality in coming weeks.

To be chosen as a settlement destination, cities must have existing immigrant infrastructure, such as a group or agency that has experience working with refugees, Mr. Friesen said.

At Surrey’s bustling welcome centre, teachers and support workers are drawing on years of experience to help nervous, sometimes traumatized families settle in and negotiate everything from buses to grocery stores. When Ms. Nolte asked a group to draw a picture of a house as part of a language exercise, one girl turned in a picture of a tent.

On Wednesday, teacher Kristjen Hull used a whiteboard and a laptop to help students identify objects – a computer, a screwdriver, a table – and concepts, such as a library card.

The card is free and allows students to take books home for up to three weeks, he explains.

Children come with wildly varying educational backgrounds. Some speak English well and know math and other subjects.

Others are starting essentially from scratch. Two teenaged brothers in the classroom, recent arrivals from Iraq, have missed seven years of school and are at elementary-grade levels in math.

After an orientation period in the ELL Welcome Centre bridge program, students are enrolled in an ELL program within the Surrey School District. The program might last a few weeks or a few months, depending on the child.

Most refugee children will not get up to speed in time to obtain a high school certificate at the same age as their Canadian counterparts. The welcome centre helps refugee students continue with their education after they leave high school.

High school-level courses are free in British Columbia until a person graduates, which is one of the first things that families are told when they come to the welcome centre.

“We take the pressure off,” Mr. Hull said.

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