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Unique Living English program helping local refugees settle into their new home

August 24, 2016

Winnipeg Free Press | A summer English language program that includes parents, kids and outings has been “perfect,” says a Syrian refugee who arrived in Winnipeg this winter speaking only Arabic. Monday, after Living English wrapped up for the day, Fatma El Ahmar demonstrated its success. She greeted visitors, answered a question about one of her three children, and said “thank you” when complimented on her English.

“I learned that here,” said El Ahmar, who arrived in Manitoba this winter in a wave of 928 Syrian refugees. Every weekday morning this summer, her entire family has gone to Living English — a seven-week program that provides child care for preschoolers and English language classes for adults and children ages six to 12.

It’s the first time they’ve all been offered together at one place, and that’s thanks to funding from Canadian Red Cross donations, private donors, government, volunteers and support from post-secondary institutions such as Red River College, where the Living English program is offered downtown. For El Ahmar, it’s the first English as an Additional Language class she’s attended since arriving in Canada nearly half a year ago.

People such as her who are on the waiting list for such classes were a priority when Living English was registering its 370 participants, said co-ordinator Jennifer Stadtmiller of the not-for-profit agency Altered Minds Inc. It runs Living English as well as the Entry program and Arabic Express for newcomers soon after they arrive in Canada.

Nearly half the Living English students are from Syria, such as El Ahmar, who is still learning the foundations of English and hopes to get into classes this fall.

Zyad al-Owimr — a truck driver from Daraa, Syria, who also arrived this winter — is a little more fluent. He’s learned the building blocks of the language — the Roman alphabet and reading letters left to right rather than right to left as in Arabic. He’s grasping more of the spoken language, too. Al-Owimr credits the Living English program and his wife — who taught French in Syria and speaks some English — with helping him.

The 37-year-old newcomer is driven to get on with his life. He passed his Class 5 road test the first time he took it and now has a Manitoba driver’s licence. He and his wife and four children are renting a home in the North End, and he’s anxious to get back to work driving truck. The biggest obstacle is mastering English, a determined al-Owimr said through an interpreter. It is the key to getting a job.

“After another year, I will be ready to work,” he said.

Both he and El Ahmar attended the Arabic Express program shortly after arriving in Winnipeg this winter. It was a two-week crash course in survival — how to buy bus tickets, see a doctor and understand the law. Instead of the usual four-week Entry program taught in English to newcomers from an array of countries and languages, Arabic Express was a condensed two-week version of that program in Arabic offered morning, noon and night to accommodate the major influx of Syrian refugees.

Surviving their first winter in Winnipeg was a challenge, said El Ahmar. “It was very hard,” she said through an interpreter. Although a quick learner who appears sunny and confident, El Ahmar says she feels anxious. “I have a lot of fear,” she said through an interpreter.

At Living English, she’s been able to see an Arabic-speaking counsellor with the Aurora Family Therapy Centre who visits the program twice a week. The therapist has helped her to relax, she said.

El Ahmar and her family of five live in a two-bedroom apartment near Portage Place. They’re concerned about getting their son Ahmed to school in his wheelchair in the winter. He was left with just one leg after a bomb hit their home in Aleppo three years ago.

“Our wish was to come to Canada to make sure that Ahmed would get good treatment,” said his mother. In a classroom nearby, eight-year-old Ahmed played board games with a Canadian theme and pictures of things such as moose and bison. Earlier this summer on a Living English field trip to the Manitoba Museum, Ahmed was introduced to another icon of Canada — Terry Fox. Seeing the Running to the Heart of Canada exhibit about Fox’s 143-day, 5,373-kilometre journey from Newfoundland to Thunder Bay, Ont., had a profound effect on the boy, who knows what it’s like to have a leg taken from him.

“At first I didn’t believe it,” said Ahmed, who has a prosthetic limb but prefers to scoot about in his wheelchair. “He ran from one side of Canada to the middle,” he said through an interpreter, marvelling at the heroic feat. “I still don’t believe it.”

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