When Lia Cirjau’s young family immigrated to Chilliwack, they didn’t know a lick of English.
They didn’t know the community, the customs, the people. And in their son’s elementary school – a place where most families are able to broaden their friendship scopes – they often felt like outsiders.
A new school-based program is working to address those issues.
This year Sardis elementary partnered with Welcome BC, a provincial government initiative that funds projects supporting the integration of immigrants into B.C. communities, with its pilot Welcoming Communities.
With Welcoming Communities, the school’s immigrant parent population participate in weekly meetings to help broaden their social capacity, develop friendships and work together to figure out ways of conquering the daily obstacles and barriers standing in the way of most new immigrants.
“We talk a lot about helping newcomers integrate into Chilliwack, and a part of that process is building relationships,” said teacher Versha Oza, who helped bring the pilot to Sardis elementary.
“We need to start learning from each other.”
Cirjau, who immigrated from Romania in 2007, hopes this program is the first step to a much larger movement across the school district.
“Society is changing,” she said. “Chilliwack is growing, and it’s growing with more immigrant families. We need to feel more welcomed in our communities.”
When Cirjau’s oldest son, then in Grade 3, started at Sardis elementary, he struggled to make friends, he couldn’t adequately communicate, he was teased for bringing unfamiliar Romanian stews for lunch instead of typical jam sandwiches, and one day, his parents were called to the principal’s office because he had apparently said a bad word.
But the word, fac, in Romanian, isn’t a bad word at all; it’s used for many common English words including I do, I make, I become.
While Cirjau now laughs at the memory, back then, it was mortifying.
“It was a big, big deal, a really bad experience,” she said, noting that she’s since tried to refrain from saying fac in public when speaking her native tongue. In fact, when interviewed by The Progress, she didn’t say the word, but rather spelled it.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with the other word here, but when you say it out loud it sounds like that bad word here,” Cirjau said.
“Having a different language is supposed to be a benefit, an asset, but sometimes we feel, having that accent,” makes us lesser in the eyes of others. “It should be the other way around. Everywhere in the world, when you know two or three languages, that means you are smart, but here… we sometimes feel judged.”
Welcoming Communities aims at making the transition easier for parents, and for their children. One way the school is doing that is through in-class cultural lessons – created by the parents.
Several of Sardis elementary’s immigrant families were invited to submit a “lesson plan” based on their culture, which resulted in a bursting binder full of school-based lessons covering the cultures of a range of countries.
“We wanted to make these lessons authentic and real,” said Corinne Barber, specialist language teacher in Chilliwack school district.
There were art lessons, language lessons, geography and more.
A map has been put up in the school with pegs indicating the different countries represented at Sardis including India, Germany, Japan, Philippines, Korea, Brazil, and, Africa.
One lesson notes the similarities of the world’s languages, another focuses on the power of the unwritten word with Indian story scrolls, a Hungarian one on the art of the biro (ballpoint pen art) meshed well with the Grade 4 art curriculum.
Teacher-librarian Christopher Hunt said it was a no-brainer to incorporate the lessons into his curriculum.
“There’s a lot of really neat [lesson plans] in that binder,” he said.
“When I first moved back here, 15 years ago, Chilliwack wasn’t very multi ethnic, but now, it’s quite multicultural – we should be celebrating that.”
Parent Esther Hass, who’s from Africa, but immigrated from Germany with her husband and two children in 2010, believes this program is a step in the right direction.
“It’s very good because if you come to this country it’s very hard to have friends, it’s very hard to get a job, it’s very hard to put your kids in a school where they don’t have a lot of friends,” said Hass. But this program, “it’s good to know that people come from different countries, they eat different types of foods, wear different things.”
It’s good to know that no one person is a cookie cutter.