Supporting refugee children during pandemic challenging but doable, researchers say

Sask Bulletin
September 15, 2021
By Jens Nielsen, former Bulletin editor

Kirsten Cavanaugh [left] and Janet Okoko help support new residents to Canada overcome numerous barriers. Their shared passion ultimately led them to receiving a McDowell Foundation grant for their project, Strengthening Schools to Support Syrian Refugees During the Pandemic.

Even though they had been working on the project together since last fall, this drizzly morning on the patio of a Saskatoon coffee shop was actually the first time the two researchers had met face-to-face (er, make that mask-to-mask).

As Kirsten Cavanaugh and Janet Okoko shared their stories over their morning java, this tablemate couldn’t help but be struck by how aligned they were, even though they come from quite different backgrounds and respective roles in the education landscape.

Cavanaugh, an English as an additional language teacher in the Saskatoon Public Schools division, had teamed up with Okoko, associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Saskatchewan.

Their shared passion in helping new residents to Canada overcome numerous barriers led to them gaining a McDowell Foundation grant for their project Strengthening Schools to Support Syrian Refugees During the Pandemic.

Even under so-called normal circumstances, the challenges of learning a new language and culture while also finding their way as members of a family unit thrust into quite unfamiliar surroundings would be challenging enough. Throw in a global pandemic and the situation is magnified.

Okoko, a native of Kenya who came to Saskatoon via the University of Calgary where she received her PhD in educational leadership, has been doing research work with integrating newcomers to Canada, including the overall family unit.

“It is key for the whole family to participate. It’s very important for our school divisions to support parents because learning as a family is key. It is very important,” she said, citing particularly the large influx of Syrian refugees that have arrived in Saskatchewan in recent years.

Okoko is a board member with the Saskatoon-based non-profit centre, the Global Gathering Place, which provides settlement assistance for newcomers to the country.

Cavanaugh echoed her research colleague’s words, noting that “strong relationships between families and schools must take place to support our learners. Never have these cooperative relations been more important as they are during COVID.

“Recently arrived refugee children face many challenges when adapting to their new country, along with parents who are maybe looking for work, attempting to learn English and adapting to different cultural norms.

“Without strong in-school supports, these children are at risk of failing socially or academically,” Cavanaugh observed.

According to Cavanaugh, in her interviews with families they cited the difficulty with language in terms of how it’s connected to their children’s school; particularly with the online delivery model which could prove frustrating if there was a lack of communication clarity, including realities such as the teacher perhaps talking too fast, thereby compromising clarification.

Cavanaugh stressed the importance of making the family connections so that there would not be a feeling of helplessness, and sometimes the meaning is lost so there is a strong need to acquire a degree of proficiency in English.

“It’s the partnership piece that enhances the proficiency levels. As a division we need to benchmark those kids in terms of outcomes and staying in touch. That’s what the research showed,” Cavanaugh added.

Okoko pointed out that it needs to be remembered that “parents very much want to help their kids, but they are not trained teachers. So we need to be able to help them acquire basic skills to equip them better. That’s why schools need to be able to provide that support, and everyone will benefit. That parental engagement is really important.”

Meanwhile, Okoko stressed that these newcomers to the country have skills in certain areas that should be taken into account.

“It’s not a blank slate, but our educators need to get to know them and what they have to offer as well as the challenges. The parents have pride, and we need to try and help them to gain the skills that enable them to get a job so they can provide a safe environment for their families. It can be very emotional for the parents because they want the best for their children and they are, in many cases, learning together,” Okoko said.

Another major factor can be the issue of systemic racism for those who are visibly different in appearance.

Okoko, who has experienced racism herself, said it is important for children to find their identity and fit into their new reality.

She acknowledged that she can be a role model, although it wasn’t a natural fit at first.

“I had to realize this quite quickly, but I’m not normally an outspoken person. But I realized I can’t just sit and say nothing in some cases.”

Cavanaugh and Okoko both praised the 100 percent resilience they have experienced, reiterating the level of commitment families have shown to make a new life in Canada.

“We have seen how very grateful the families are and they are genuinely happy to be here in this country. When we’re able to provide the basic supports to help them they are really happy,” Okoko noted. “We can make this doable, and having the strong partnerships is the next step so that we can sit together and map out what we can offer to achieve the learning outcomes. Parents very much want to engage.”

Cavanaugh concurred, pointing specifically to the Cheer Crates campaign orchestrated by the Saskatoon Public Schools Foundation as an example of the partnerships that can be the key.

“The families are ready and willing to engage and to offer what they can in terms of helping achieve a strong education for their children. We need to work together to make this happen.”