Education students reach out to refugee women

Posted: December 20, 2016 6:00 a.m.

Finda Sam (l) is originally from Sierra Leone and spent years in a refugee camp in Guinea. Here she is taking an English lesson from Dr. Fatima Pirbhai-Illich, associate professor of Language and Literacy Education.
Finda Sam (l) is originally from Sierra Leone and spent years in a refugee camp in Guinea. Here she is taking an English lesson from Dr. Fatima Pirbhai-Illich, associate professor of Language and Literacy Education. Photo courtesy of Shuana Niessen – Faculty of Education

A collaborative effort between the Faculty of Education and the community has made a big difference for women refugees in Regina.

Since early October, second-year education students and others from the U of R volunteered one-on-one English lessons to about a dozen new Canadians. The final class was November 25.

It’s made a big difference. Just ask Finda Sam. Once or twice a week, Sam and her baby boy came to Central Lutheran Church in Regina where the classes took place. Volunteers babysat Sam’s child as she was tutored one-on-one.

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Second-year education student Marissa Cuddington is one of the volunteers helping refugee women learn English language skills. Photo - Shuana Niessen

“I want to learn to read and write,” says Sam who is originally from Sierra Leone.

Her English teacher is second-year education student Jonah Norman-Gray.

“It is good to see this kind of program show up in a grass-roots scenario. This is beautiful. It is the goodness of people,” says Norman-Gray.

The women were encouraged to bring their children. It was a rewarding experience for the students.

“I will be using this experience in the future. I think it is very important work,” says Norman-Gray.
Says education student Darian Kaszas; “We are bound to have students who don’t speak English, or students trying to learn another language.”

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Education students Taylor Raby (l) and Darian Kaszas volunteered their time to teach. Photo - Shuana Niessen

The program was developed by Dr. Fatima Pirbhai-Illich, associate professor of Language and Literacy Education at the Faculty of Education and Dr. Meredith Cherland, Professor Emeritus.

This started when Cherland met Finda Sam in church. They both attend Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church. Sam needed help to improve her English language skills and turned to Cherland for help. At the time, Sam was waiting for a childcare spot to open before taking English classes at the Open Door Society.

“The classes at Open Door and the library have a limited number of spaces and there are wait lists,” says Cherland.

(Sam and her husband) “had spent many years of their young lives in a refugee camp in Guinea, although they were born in Sierra Leone. Their first language is Kisi, an African language I had never heard of,” says Cherland.

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The refugee parents were encouraged to bring their infant and pre-school children to class. Volunteers kept the children busy while moms were being tutored. Photo - Shuana Niessen

With Sam’s situation in mind, Cherland and Pribhai-Illich came up with the idea of helping new Canadian women with children.

They set up a language program specifically for those on waiting lists for classes at the Open Door Society, the Regina Public Library and the Regina Immigrant Women’s Centre.

There was immediate demand for the service.

Pirbhai-Illich prepared the course material after assessing where the refugees were with their English skills. She assisted the education students with strategies teaching English as a second language. The Regina Public Library has also helped with curriculum.  

This idea opened the door for volunteer opportunities for the education students.

Cherland and Pribhai-Illich, who also volunteered at the sessions, worked in partnership with the Saskatchewan Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. It provided $1,100 to help with some expenses.

Central Lutheran Church provided space free of charge.

"This is the most important part,” says Pirbhai-Illich. “It’s amazing and we wouldn’t have been able to offer the program without it.”

Church members volunteered their time, helping with set up and bringing homemade halal snacks once a week.

Says volunteer Bernice Casper; “I think this is so wonderful for new Canadians to have this opportunity to learn English one-on-one. It’s one-on-one. That’s what I want to emphasize about this program. I also love the interactions between the U of R students and the English students.”

The students volunteered their free time and also donated goods such as diapers and clothing.

Cynthia Schultz, a University of Regina master’s student in the Faculty of Education, was hired as the coordinator.

“For me, I see the importance of these classes for the women who attend. They are no longer at home all day by themselves or only with their young children,” says Schultz. “They come to us for four hours per week, they get to socialize with other women, and of course, they learn a variety of English language and literacy skills. I have noticed their language skills becoming much stronger and it is wonderful to see.”

There are plans to continue this program. With the number of refugee women waiting for English classes, there are hopes of attracting retired teachers and more student volunteers to the program.