December 21, 2011
Schools in need: Morley Elementary is a safe haven for refugee kids
“Compassion before curriculum” is never likely to make it as a school motto given what the institution of education is all about.
But it might well describe Burnaby’s Morley elementary.
Morley’s a school – the big sign outside says so – but for the 30 or so refugee kids enrolled there it’s a haven first.
“When they first come, these kids are in survival mode,” said principal Hal Wall.
He doesn’t need to spell out why they need sheltering.
They are refugees from war – where anything goes – and children see and experience things, even the telling of which would keep most people from sleeping well at night.
So when the kids arrive at Morley’s doors some are emotionally frozen by the relentless effects of post-traumatic stress.
They are angry, unhappy, unable to relate to Canadian children who come from the expensive homes two blocks away and basically, said Wall, don’t want to be there.
His school on Morley Street has 320 students, of whom about 10 per cent have refugee back-grounds, a number from the conflict in Afghanistan.
“Edmonds elementary has 100 [refugee students] out of 300, which puts them head and shoulders above all of us dealing with this,” he said.
Because of what they have witnessed, many of the children are incapable, at first, of becoming attached to anyone or anything in school.
Not so long ago such disengagement might well have stymied their chances of getting the most out of school.
But today, Wall said, educators have realized they have to go further in trying to reach such kids.
“We have to consciously spend time with the student. Show him we care for him, that we’re not angry with him. That we accept him as he is and where he is.
“There isn’t a magic 10-minute talk or a magic lesson that can solve this.”
The solution is to form an attachment between a student and an adult at school then use that to connect the child with other children.
“Recess and lunch breaks are scary times for children from refugee or needy backgrounds because the time is so unstructured and they are not used to playing games or solving conflicts with other kids,” he explained.
“So when I see one of these kids outside and he doesn’t have any friends and doesn’t want to engage I’ll go up to him and walk with him and talk about what the other kids are doing.
“I’ll say, ‘Look at those kids, they have a smile on their faces. You could do those things and have a smile on your face, too’, and I’ll introduce him to those kids.”
“You’ll see more hugs in this school than others because these kids need to be physically reassured. You’ll often see a counsellor holding the hands of a child making that necessary physical touch and attachment.”
Six years ago there were 120 suspensions a year as a result of the sometimes violent response by angry, upset students.
“Since we have moved to the attachment model that makes school safe, welcoming and comfortable, we’re down to one or two a year,” he said.
Given the special needs of the school, it is well served by federal and provincial programs to help with the initial settlement of refugees, Wall said.
But after a year these families are expected to make a go of it on their own, while at the same time being obliged to repay the government the thousands of dollars in airfares it cost to bring them to Canada. This financial burden can be crushing and some refugee families descend into poverty.
Wall believes the school has social responsibilities to these families that extend beyond the property line.
“We try to help parents build relationships with other parents so they’re not isolated. We help them find jobs, access resources, fill in forms, provide [transit] faresaver cards, food certificates – the list goes on and on.
“We regularly feed about 30 families. But we need money to be able to buy things like winter jackets and boots. Once people realize there are children in need they will help.”
He has private donors who are of great assistance, he says, but he struggles at times to find the money to feed hungry children and families. The nearby Gordon Presbyterian Church has the school’s name on its weekly offering envelopes distributed to parishioners.
Wall said he would like to do more to integrate children into the community by getting them involved in after-school sports and other activities, but it’s difficult because the registration cost for sports like soccer was prohibitive for parents suffering from poverty.
Wall, who was interviewed last Thursday, said he would also like to set up a music program to assist the attachment process for refugee and needy children.
“It’s not the school band stuff. What we really need are things like guitars and electronic key-boards which are played individually, but we don’t have any money for that,” he said.
However, upon hearing of the need, Best Buy Canada promised to supply a significant quantity of musical instruments and on Fri-day the company’s community representative Vicki Foley visited the school to meet with Wall and discuss his needs.
“We heard about the opportunity and basically we couldn’t wait to help out,” said Foley. “What some of these kids have been through is unimaginable. We love to help kids excel at school not only with technology but with music, too.”
Best Buy Canada’s generosity will benefit two other schools, Wall said.
“It’s a wonderful gift and we’ll be able to share these instruments with a couple of other schools whose need is the same as ours.”
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