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BCTF Advantage
Teacher Newsmagazine   Volume 23, Number 3, Nov./Dec. 2010  

“You make our lives better”

Lessons in hope from Tamil refugee students 

By Nancy Knickerbocker  

Just after sunrise on August 13, 2010, the MV Sun Sea, a decrepit 59-metre cargo ship, docked in Esquimalt Harbour under tight security provided by two RCMP patrol boats and the watchful eyes of Canada Border Service agents. On board were 492 Sri Lankan refugee claimants, including two pregnant women, a six-month-old baby, and about 40 pre-school and school-aged children.

Three Burnaby teachers watched the news with concern, but never imagined that they were about to begin the most unusual school year of their careers, teaching these very children who had endured months of ocean crossing with very limited food and water in a vessel that was far from seaworthy and now far from home.

The arrival of the Sun Sea, the second ship carrying Tamil migrants to land on BC shores, created a tidal wave of controversy that swept across Canada. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews voiced suspicions that the ship was carrying members of the terrorist Tamil Tigers, and declared that every passenger would be assessed individually to ensure they were not engaged in criminal activity, including human smuggling.

After initial medical examinations in Victoria, the male Tamils were transferred to a detention facility in Maple Ridge and the females were sent to the Burnaby Youth Custody Services Centre. The children were housed with their mothers.

As September approached, the Burnaby school district was asked to provide educational services to the Tamil children, with joint funding from the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Children and Families. Reno Ciofi, director of instruction in Burnaby, said he assembled “a dream team” of teachers with a wealth of special education and ESL expertise to work with this unique group of children.

“I felt privileged to be asked to do it,” said Cora Kinoshita, who had honed her ESL skills just the past summer working with rural children in the Philippines.

“We were very excited,” added Joan Peddie. “What an opportunity!”

Kinoshita and Peddie each work part time with the 5- and 6 year-olds, while Pilar Spratt works full-time with the 7- to 12-year-olds.

The teachers soon discovered that only a few of the children had had any access to education in Sri Lanka, and it wasn’t a very positive experience: “Canadian teachers nice. Sri Lankan teachers bad,” the children said. Pilar explained that “they’ve been physically disciplined in school back home, but not here.”

The first lessons were about proper conduct in school—lining up, sharing, taking turns.

“We needed to be firm,” said Peddie. “They didn't know any rules because they have never been to school before.”

“But they’ve adapted really well… Now they are starting to remind one another of the rules!” Kinoshita said. “And they are so eager to learn, they’re just lapping it up.”

Most of the children are Level One learners who are illiterate in their native Tamil language but it’s amazing how quickly they are progressing. “Some are so focused, with a great aptitude for languages,” Peddie said.

“At first it may seem that the more extroverted students are the ones really getting it,” Spratt noted. “I had one student who at first was very withdrawn, but now he’s no longer shy and is willing to speak up. I can see that quite a bit has actually gone in. Some are real leaders in the group. After all, these kids have been together in close quarters for a long time.”

All three teachers observed that the children understandably show a lot of interest in ships, and big boats frequently show up in their drawings. Do they seem traumatized by their perilous ocean crossing?

“If there is trauma, we are not seeing evidence of it,” said Spratt, adding that the children seem particularly resilient and cheerful, shedding fewer tears than teachers see in typical Canadian schools.

Classroom work so far has focused on concrete vocabulary, taught with some bilingual books, lots of props, and animated facial expressions. Calendar activities, the weather, colours of the rainbow, parts of the body and items of clothing, the importance of hand-washing, following directions, Canadian money, the numbers from one to ten (although some children already know one to a million), and different occupations and professions.

All three of the teachers were impressed by the children’s high hopes for the future. “There are several future doctors and teachers in the group,” said Spratt. “They have aspirations and they are willing to work very hard. They have even asked for homework.”

Their mothers are attentive to the children’s learning and daily express their thanks to the teachers, bowing with their hands held palms together as if in prayer.

“It's so touching when they do that,” Kinoshita said, adding the moms often bring little treats.

“You just see the appreciation and gratitude on the faces of the children and the parents,” said Ciofi. “It has to do with how our teachers work to establish a relationship with every child. The curriculum comes next. You can't be there for more than a few minutes before you start tearing up.”

The teachers were especially moved to find a message for them written in sidewalk chalk on the playground. It said: “You make our lives better.”

The mothers and children are occasionally taken for visits with the fathers, who are detained in Maple Ridge. What do they make of their situation?

“They understand they are waiting for the immigration process to take place,” said Spratt. “Hearing” is a word they understand. They’ll say, for example: “Today father hearing.” Or: “Tomorrow release?”

And indeed, some of the children and their parents have been released into the Canadian community. “I miss some of them already,” said Spratt. “In particular I had three siblings who were just so happy. Their joy is infectious, their wide smiles and bright eyes.”

What about those Canadians who say these migrants are just queue-jumpers who should be sent back to Sri Lanka?

“People are too caught up in where they stand on these issues,” Spratt says. “It’s the children we are providing this for. Children have rights, and we’re just there to help them.” 

Nancy Knickerbocker is the BCTF media relations officer.  

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