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How one family is learning to adapt on the first day of school in Canada

Mariah Al Rassoul, centre, holds hands with classmates Aarush, left, and Kaili during her first day in kindergarten on Jan 4.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

At 8 a.m. on a frigid Monday morning, six children of the Al Rassoul family are lined up inside the door of their new Scarborough house, all ready for the first day of school in their adopted country.

The boys shuffle their new winter boots as their mother and two aunts tug on their toques and scarves. Their five-year-old sister, Mariah, the class clown of the group, bounces around in her Minnie Mouse jeans and purple backpack, trading high fives with anyone who will play.

How this morning will go, no one can say for sure. The family arrived in Toronto barely more than two weeks ago. Forced to give up their old life in Homs, Syria, by fighting that raged within a stone's throw of their house, they spent four years in Lebanon before being offered a chance to come to Canada as refugees. None of the kids got any formal schooling in their exile. None speaks more than a few words of English.

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How on earth are they to cope with the new ways of the Canadian school system? How on earth will the schools cope with them?

The answer in both cases: pretty well, considering. Apart from one little drama – an epic tantrum by little Mariah, who makes an impression by hurling a sneaker at the school principal – the kids have a good first day.

Their father, Mahmoud Al Rassoul, and his wife, Isaaf Al Omar, have eight kids in all. One of them, Malek, 15, has to wait for an assessment of his language and academic skills before he gets assigned to a high school. Another, three-year-old Maaly, is too young for school.

That leaves six. Two of the boys go off to middle school, driven there by the family's well-organized Canadian sponsor group. The four younger kids get a lift to Iroquois Junior Public, a strikingly diverse elementary school of around 270 students near Finch Avenue and McCowan Road.

Iroquois welcomes them with a minimum of fuss, just as it has welcomed countless other new kids from far-flung places. After a few minutes milling around the office, where Mariah admires the aquarium and learns the word "fish," the kids are dispatched to their various classrooms. That's how it works at this level. No preliminaries. Straight into the deep end, where the water at least is warm.

In Christina Fan's kindergarten class, Mariah takes her place on the carpet, learning to sit with her legs crossed like the others. "Good morning, Mariah," her classmates sing out together, clapping their hands in welcome. When Ms. Fan asks who wants to be Mariah's friend, hands shoot up.

Benita, who wears her hair in a ponytail, wins the privilege. She takes Mariah by the hand and shows her where to find the toilet cubicle in the corner of the room. A minute later, they are playing together in a toy kitchen, laughing as Mariah pretends to chomp on some plastic fruit.

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Upstairs in his Grade 6 class, Mariah's brother Mohannad, 11, sits on the carpet with his own new buddy, Akisan, who is gamely explaining what is going on, even if Mohannad doesn't understand most of it. By coincidence, the class is learning about what Canada does for the wider world – such as welcoming Syrian refugees.

Bringing thousands of them to Canada on short notice presents plenty of challenges. How, for example, will Mr. Al Rassoul, a construction worker, find the job he needs to help support a family of eight? His sponsors will help. And one big advantage for places such as like Toronto is the wealth of experience that its schools have welcoming and integrating immigrant kids. The schools are wondrously efficient integration machines, turning newcomers into little Canadians at speed.

Teacher Susan Trentos said she is confident Mohannad will fit in, given a little time; kids are endlessly adaptable.

"I'm not worried," Ms. Trentos says, whose own father came to Canada from Greece as a kid. "He'll make friends."

Iroquois is well-used to absorbing newcomers. According to its website, all but 30 or so of its students listed a primary language other than English. Most are from South Asian or East Asian backgrounds. Chinese and Tamil are two of the most common home languages.

Of the quarter of a million kids in the Toronto District School Board, 22 per cent were born outside of Canada. Last year alone, the TDSB took in 5,676 new-immigrant children. Guidance counsellors, English-as-a-second-language teachers, social workers and special-education instructors are ready to step in if a kid falters.

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They are used to dealing with tantrums, too. About halfway through the morning, Mariah bolts out the door into the cold without a coat, fleeing who knows what. When principal Marcia Pate brings the girl back inside, Mariah rewards her by pelting her with the shoe and then delivering a few solid punches. This girl has six brothers, after all.

She soon calms down and, just a few minutes later, she is in the computer room with her new classmates, trying out a game that happens to involve putting a variety of different shoes on cartoon figures. Her eyes light up. She likes that.

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More

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