For refugees dealing with a new land and memories of past ordeals, learning English is notoriously difficult. Thankfully, there are those who want to help and none are more strong willed than the English teachers who help refugees communicate the past and discover their future.
Kue Bway was born in a UN-run refugee camp on the Thai–Myanmar border after the Burmese government began its attacks on the Karen people. At seven months old, she lost her father when he left for Thailand to earn money to support Kue’s mother, two sisters, brother and aunt. For 14 years, she languished in the camp with her family, lacking the financial resources to leave.
Upon reaching Canada in 2007 as a refugee, Kue enrolled in high school and soon dreamed of attending college despite it seeming like an impossibility. She says she wants to become a teacher and return to Karen State in Myanmar to assist the people in the growing refugee camps. In her camp, there were no real teachers for children like her.
What helped make her dream possible was an award for refugees. Four years after arriving with little knowledge of English, she was accepted into Douglas College.
The B.C. Teachers of English as an Additional Language (BC TEAL) was the first of its kind to gather ESL teachers, promote research and share advancements in the field. Started in 1967, BC TEAL’s unique position as English language educators put them in a position to understand the needs and struggles of immigrant and refugee communities.
From there, the BC TEAL Charitable Foundation (TCF) was begun in 1986, enshrining empathy in its mandate, which promotes an “understanding of the impact of the learner’s cultural environment on the ability to learn additional languages.” Scholarships are offered to teachers to allow attendance at industry conferences and foreign travel in the pursuit of research.
The foundation’s leadership also created the first refugee award to provide education funding to an adult or high school student. Annually, $2,500 is awarded with most students choosing to pursue a two-year degree.
The inception of the TCF refugee award began major fundraising through silent auctions and the annual Grouse Grind “Climb for the Cause” challenge. This year’s event was held on Sept. 13 and raised over $11,000 towards a second refugee award.
Though helpful to those wishing to start college, the first award only covers about half the tuition through the first year. Kue made it through her first year before having to take a break to work and save up before returning. Going into debt is not an option for most newcomers.
This is where the second refugee award comes in. Michael Galli, former president of BC TEAL, started the Taiga Galli Memorial Refugee award in honour of his son, Taiga, who passed away at six weeks old. Once fully funded, the award will provide $2,500 for continued attendance for students like Kue who see university as critical to a bright future.
Kue is not the only one to hope. Those who understand best what refugees bring to Canada are helping and advocating too. Past TCF Annual Conference speakers include Ujjal Dosanjh, the former BC Premier and long-time volunteer with such organizations as Vancouver Multicultural Society and MOSAIC.
One of this year’s keynote speakers, Kim Phuc, managed to strike an especially salient chord. She is perhaps best known for being the “Girl in the picture” in an award-winning photograph taken in 1972. When she was nine years of age, she was photographed running unclothed towards the photographer with terror on her face following an attack by a South Vietnam jet fighter. The image marked a turning point in public perceptions of the Vietnam War. Phuc was not expected to live but made a full recovery and later sought political asylum in Canada. She now lives outside Ontario.