How B.C.’s largest school district supports newcomer families

Earlier this summer, The Source released an article in honour of World Refugee Day highlighting the extensive challenges refugee claimants face to be recognized and settle in Canada ranging from housing to employment. Whether accompanied by guardians or on their own, refugee children and youth face unique challenges to their integration.

| Photo courtesy of Surrey Schools.

The UN Refugee Agency estimates that 40 per cent of the world’s displaced are children; 153,300 of those are unaccompanied and separated from their families. Even once granted status in their host countries, refugee children and youth continue to shoulder trauma from events witnessed and endured. At the same time, they must adapt to the norms of their new environment.

“Like all school-age students, students who are refugees should be offered an education program that follows provincial curriculum and graduation requirements,” states an excerpt from the Government of British Columbia website.

Unsurprisingly, the Government of British Columbia requires that children and youth from the refugee class be enrolled in formal education and offers families and school districts funding to address their needs in settlement. This requirement provides unique access to school districts to refugee children and youth and their families, which many leverage to create various support initiatives for newcomers. In B.C.’s largest school district, serving Surrey and White Rock and the rural area of Barnston Island, the Surrey School District does this through their welcome centre.

The city of Surrey is B.C.’s largest city geographically, known nationally for its large immigrant population. Statistics Canada estimates that 45 per cent of Surrey’s population was born outside of Canada – more than Metro Vancouver’s overall average of 42 per cent.

Data reveals that between 2016 and 2021, the City of Surrey experienced an unprecedented growth rate, more than twice that of the City of Vancouver, the province’s largest city. Projections suggest that by 2050, City of Surrey will become the province’s largest city.

Surrey schools welcome centre

With a high immigrant population and the promise of many more to come, the Surrey School District aims to support the diverse needs of newcomers, including the most vulnerable among them: refugees.

The Surrey Schools Welcome Centre aims to “support the transition to life in Canada” by facilitating connections between newcomers and their communities. the Surrey Schools Welcome Centre offers a range of programs and services, including six-to eight-week social and literacy support sessions (Bridge Program) and homework clubs for students in elementary school.

The Surrey Schools Welcome Centre’s goal is to support refugee and immigrant students’ transition to life in Canada. | Photo courtesy of Surrey Schools.

Through their welcome centre, newcomer students benefit from multicultural employees providing in-class support to children and youth in need. The centre also employs settlement workers equipped to serve children and their families in over 30 languages such as Arabic, Vietnamese, Russian and Swahili, per their website.

Community-building activities include different versions of the ‘Connect Through’ programs, including Connect Through Community Experience, Connect Through Healthy Living, Connect Through Homework, Connect Through Reading, Connect Through Sport, and Connect Through Voices. In each case, the Connect Through programs offer newcomer students and their families the opportunity to connect with each other and their communities by engaging in an interest-based activity.

The centre also features Bridge Programs (including continuous, co-op and work experience programs) focused on older youth, aged 15 to 19. In the past year, School District 36 provided support to more than 130 students from countries including Afghanistan, Ukraine and Somalia through their Bridge Program. The centre has also partnered with Surrey RCMP to pilot offering free meals to Bridge and Bridge Co-op program students. Through this, all parties hope to support food security and engage refugee and other newcomer children on policing and community safety, according to the Surrey Schools website.

In May, the centre set up a cricket program for Afghanistan newcomers and refugees and a girls-only volleyball program. The cricket program is run by a settlement worker from the Welcome Centre and has drawn students from schools across the district who can connect with one another through weekly matches.

The volleyball team is led by two coaches from Volleyball B.C. to teach girls the foundations of the sport. For some, this is the first time they have the opportunity to engage in extracurricular sports. Both programs are run as part of a centre initiative to “bring sports to newcomers of Canada’’ and help ease the transition for the students, per the Surrey Schools website.

Support also offered to parents and guardians

Described by the district as a ‘community hub,’ the Welcome Centre aims to support not only students but their families as well. The Literacy Foundations program targets ESL adults in the community aiming to complete their high school education who require settlement support. The program curriculum is designed for those with ‘significant skills and knowledge gaps,’ based on a required assessment administered to those interested in
the program.

The Sharing Canadian Experience Conversation Circle is geared towards supporting the social needs of newcomer parents and caregivers in the community by creating a space for participants to engage with one another on topics relating to Canadian culture, community resources and more.

In preparation for new refugee and immigrant student enrolment in the fall, the Surrey School District has organized six of their ‘Newcomer Networking Nights’ between September and October to promote their services to newcomer families and give them the opportunity to engage with each other.

For more information about the Surrey Schools Welcome Centre and programs, please visit: