December 17, 2011

The United Nations of Burnaby; Byrne Creek secondary has students from 70 different countries

Byrne Creek secondary could be the poster child for the growing ethnic diversity of the Lower Mainland.

“The families in our community come from over 70 different countries,” says the school’s principal, Dave Rawnsley.

“We’ve got large numbers of students from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Eritrea, you name it. A lot of families have come from the Philippines. It’s an incredibly rich [community], true multiculturalism.”

Unfortunately, the cultural richness doesn’t mean the community has a lot of money. About 15 per cent of the Burnaby school’s 1,250 students come from refugee families.

“When government-assisted refugees first started settling in the Lower Mainland, the corridor that we’re in along Kingsway was the primary government-assisted settlement,” explains Rawnsley. “So we have about 600 government-assisted refugees that have settled in our community over the past 10 years.”

Coming in at high-school age, many of the kids need a lot of support adapting to Canada, which they get from the school. It’s open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., six days a week, and provides all manner of programs.

“We look at how do we educate the whole child. … everything from breakfast and lunch and after-school meal programs to warm winter jackets, socks and gloves, clothing exchanges, youth programs and outreach, those sort of things,” says Rawnsley.

Byrne Creek secondary school principal Dave Rawnsley with students Nyalem Wan (left), Anush Muhammadazam (front), Mahjobeh Badakhsh, Erika Yau-Xu and Shathi Kazi. (NICK PROCAYLO/PNG)

“We’re really trying to take care of the needs of all of our kids and all of our families, to support them so they can focus on learning.”

Each student comes with a different set of needs. Anush Muhammadazam, 15, is of Afghan descent, but was born in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, where his family fled from their war-torn homeland.

The Grade 10 student dreams of becoming a dentist, and says Byrne’s programs have been “really important” in helping him adapt to Canada since he arrived on April 29, 2010. (Byrne Creek’s immigrant kids don’t only know the year they moved to Canada, they know the exact date.) Another student of Afghan descent, 17-year-old Mahjobeh Badakhsh, moved to Canada when she was seven.

“In Afghanistan my dad was a university professor for anthropology and archeology, and my mom was a history professor,” she relates.

“We had to go to Iran to escape the Taliban, then in 2002 we came to Canada.”

Badakhsh is fluent in several languages – “I speak Farsi, Dari [a dialect of Farsi], I can read Arabic, and I speak English and a little bit of Spanish” – and wants to go to university to study international relations.

“Something to do with human rights, [so I can become] either a human-rights activist or a professor of international law,” she says.

What set her on the path? Going to Byrne Creek secondary.

“At Byrne Creek I’ve gotten to see views from around the world,” she says.

“I’ve gotten to know what a lot of countries are going through. It’s inspired me to be active in the world, and to try to make a better world for everyone.”

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