While everyone takes a different path to achieve their educational goals, the journey can be especially difficult for newcomers to Canada.
That was the main message to emerge from an event held at UBC’s Global Lounge in March. The event was organized by the UBC Centre for Community Engaged Learning (CCEL) in partnership with EdMeCo, a new grassroots organization that helps immigrants and refugees over the age of 19 achieve their educational goals, and the World University Service of Canada (WUSC).
The event brought together ten people who arrived in Canada as refugees or immigrants and who are now living in the Metro Vancouver area. They met with five UBC students who are part of the Refugee Scholar program, a WUSC initiative that provides scholarships and path to citizenship for refugees.
The event sought to center the voices of young people experiencing and overcoming settlement issues first-hand and to build connections between UBC and community groups working to support them on their educational journeys.
Sharing lived experiences
The participants talked with each other and shared their experiences of overcoming challenges to get to where they are and what it will take to get to where they want to be in the future. There were some very moving stories and connections made at the event.
A Senior Mentor with EdMeCo led an activity that posed questions about each student’s past, present, and future: “What challenges have you faced upon arriving in Canada? What are you most proud of right now? What would have made your journey easier? Where do you see yourself in 2023? What is in your way?”
The students recorded their answers in a timeline that showed the immense difficulties that immigrant and refugee youth face when it comes to receiving an education. Many of the students shared similar experiences of facing language and cultural barriers.
But that doesn’t mean they’ve lost hope. A common theme that emerged was the value of education. Everyone talked about education being essential to their ability to achieve their goals in life. Learning is not something they took for granted.
While many agreed that Canada offered educational opportunities that would not be available to them in their home countries, navigating the education system in Canada has not been easy for most of them.
Education after high school
Continuing to learn beyond high school is something that can be especially difficult for newcomers. While many supports exist within the high school system for immigrant and refugee students — for example, in Vancouver there are English language classes, settlement workers in schools and cultural liaison officers — many of these supports disappear once a newcomer student graduates or “ages out” of the public school system.
So if a student needs to obtain additional high school credits through the adult education system in order to graduate, or wants to apply to a college or university, they often must do so without the help they previously had from teachers and counselors in the public school system.
To give you a better idea of the barriers newcomers face when trying to complete their education — and their resilience in overcoming them — here are a few of their stories.
When Usman Khan arrived in Canada he had already completed Grade 11 at an international school in Pakistan and was expecting to enter Grade 12 in Vancouver. But the high school he wanted to go to would not recognize his Grade 11 credits. Instead, Usman had to re-do those credits at an adult education centre.
Usman graduated high school “on time”, before turning 19, but his difficulties did not end once he received his diploma. When trying to apply for UBC and Langara College, Usman found it very difficult to understand what he needed to do to qualify.
He received conflicting information from the academic advisors he spoke to and they gave him advice that didn’t apply to him. Because he came from Pakistan, his situation was more complicated than the average Canadian student’s situation. Usman grew frustrated and wishes that he had more support during this process.
Oat Rmah arrived in Canada eight years ago as a refugee from Vietnam. She entered high school in Vancouver without any knowledge of English and therefore had the difficult task of trying to obtain high school credits at the same time as learning a new language, making new friends, and building a life in a foreign country. She was unable to complete her diploma before turning 19 years old, the age at which she is too old to continue attending high school.
Her only option now is to complete high school credits through the adult education system. But it’s not that easy and she continues to face major challenges.
For one thing, the adult education centre does not always offer the required courses she needs at the times she is available to go to school — at night, because she works full time during the weekdays. Even when she is able to take a class she needs for her diploma, many are only offered as self-guided courses, a style of learning that is not for everyone. Oat is struggling to complete her high school diploma while working full-time.
The first shock for Ibrahim when he arrived in Canada was the weather. Arriving as he did from the heat of Saudi Arabia, he was not ready for the frigid Canadian winter.
The second shock was culture-related. Canadian culture was completely foreign and there were only a few things about Canada that were familiar to him. He had to learn step-by-step the norms of Canadian society and how to navigate in a new city.
Ibrahim only knew the basics of English when he entered high school as a Grade 8 student. The biggest challenge for him was learning how the school system worked and how people treated each other, at the same time as learning a new language.
As an immigrant, he faced a lot of stereotypes and wishes his teachers provided more support. He encourages future newcomers to seek out help when they need it.
For Ibrahim, education is important because it helps him develop a new way of learning and the opportunity for a better life than the one he had before.
Yaser Amiri arrived in Canada as a refugee from Afghanistan after a harrowing journey that took him through five countries. Upon arriving in Canada, he went to high school in Vancouver. Similar to Oat, Yaser was unable to complete all the credits for his high school diploma before he turned 19 and aged out of the public school system.
Instead of completing his degree through the adult education system, Yaser has joined his father working at an auto body repair shop. He’s now taking courses at Vancouver Community College in the hopes that one day he and his father can open up their own shop.
EdMeCo was created for people like Oat, Usman, Ibrahim and Yaser to achieve their dreams. The grassroots organization has three main values: education, mentoring and connection.
Jennifer Reddy and Nish Thaver, the co-founders of EdMeCo along with five youth leaders including Oat, Usman, Ibrahim, Yaser, and Hana, have witnessed firsthand the challenges newcomers face when they arrive in Canada, having worked in the Vancouver and Surrey school districts for several years.
The goal of their organization is to help immigrant and refugee students become their best selves and pursue their education by providing mentorship, support and a connection to the community as the youth navigate the education system.
EdMeCo recognizes that every individual has different sets of needs and they try to provide support wherever they can.
For example, EdMeCo has helped Oat by connecting her with a tutor who is helping her improve her math skills. They’ve also helped her think deeply about her goals. Oat knows that she wants to be a writer, and mentors from EdMeCo have helped her map out what she needs to do to achieve her goal. Oat is also a leader in the design of mentorship and social media for EdMeCo.
EdMeCo helped Yaser with the application process as he applied to Vancouver Community College. Yaser is also a leader in the design of EdMeCo.
Most importantly, EdMeCo is creating a community of people facing the same challenges, so that they know they are not alone in their struggles. EdMeCo realizes that the support students need is not always specifically related to education and may require something simple like having a friend to talk to, or a group of friends to go to a movie.
EdMeCo hopes to make that path to education a little easier to travel.