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Life is the best English lesson for new Canadians

The last issue of Christian Courier introduced readers to a Somali family newly arrived in Nova Scotia. This piece gives an in-depth look at the next stages of sponsorship, which will be useful to groups still waiting for families to arrive and may sound familiar to readers already helping new Canadians get settled.                                             Editor
KENTVILLE, N.S. – So what is it that we sponsors actually do on a day-to-day basis? Our committee had been meeting since last summer. We were connected with a family. The thought of raising six children in a refugee camp appalled us all. How can any sense of normalcy be maintained? What future is there in tents and shacks with no strong doors to lock, no regular food supply and very little education for the kids?

Endless forms were filled out, contact with our local Member of Parliament when the process seemed stalled, phone calls to Abdulkadir and Hawa in the camp. And finally there we were at Halifax International Airport with our big welcome signs, teddy bears for the kids, balloons.

Luckily Lul, a Somali woman in Halifax, was there to greet them in Maay Maay and to provide the hugs that at first seemed presumptuous. We carefully refrained from shaking hands with the opposite gender. Lul went home with them that first night, and it was far after midnight before those excited kids were willing to leave the hitherto unknown riches of their new playroom for bed.

We made sure that the family wasn’t alone much that first week. Soon the kids were introduced to their school. We took them to the nearest grocery store. The parents got a bank account set up and learned how to use a debit card. This being a blended sponsorship, money is deposited monthly into their accounts by the federal government and by our committee. We got the adults cell phones and a laptop for the boys that is heavily used. School helps in language acquisition, and this summer the whole family went for English lessons four days a week.

Building vocabulary

I drive Abdulkadir and the boys to prayers on Friday afternoon. Car ownership is at the pinnacle of Abdulkadir’s desires, and my shiny red 2012 Civic embodies his ideals. So does every other car on the road, in a country where even the women own a car. We pass a large minivan at the stoplight, and he says, “How mutts?” I have no idea, but, “Maybe 30,000, that one.” He ponders the answer. “Datt is four zeroes?” I summarize with “Too much money!” and he drops the subject. Till next time.

We stop at their house afterwards, and Abdulkadir pokes one cautious finger at my dust-covered car. “You wash?” he asks regretfully. I grin at him, and teach the kids how to write their names on this dusty blackboard. I go home sporting “Dahabbo,” “Noor” and “Kosar” on the car. I help Sheikhany with her name; she’s only five. The next morning it seems a shame to wash off this memory of innocent play.

Since Abdulkadir is so fascinated by cars, here comes an English lesson. A touch on his arm, then I swing the steering wheel around and make a circle with one hand: “Steering wheel!” Amidst low traffic, I slam on the brakes. Mohammed, in back, has already caught on: “Brakes!” We go through gas pedal, window, door handle, speedometer and many other parts of the car.

Another day I heard Hawa mumbling beside me, “I have a headache.” We go through earache, sore throat, sore thumb, bellyache and various other disorders.

Abdulkadir tries to get my attention once too often by calling my name loudly, with a peremptory, “Wait!” I tell him that “in Canada, we say, ‘Please wait!’” Noor quickly indicates his understanding by repeating, “Please! can you help me?” and then the whole family is practicing, please this and please that. Every interaction is an English lesson.

These kids are amazingly polite and well-behaved if you consider what their life has been. I seldom step into their house without hearing several solicitous inquiries after my health. Which is not to say that they necessarily obey instantly. Take Sheikhany and her child’s car safety seat.

Her personality comes out in sparks and flashes of independence, and she does not like to be tied down. Within days she learned how to unbuckle herself. Soon she refused to get into the seat at all. I may have raised four sons and helped with the next generation, but I have yet to meet a child who’s as determined as this one. One day I waited her out for half an hour, pretending to take a nap in my seat while the doors were safely locked, before she relented. Anyone who has seen Sheikhany’s grin, full of fun and mischief, might understand why I’d adopt her myself if the need was there. How do you reason with children without using words? Fortunately, Sheikhany soon gained the extra weight needed to graduate into a booster seat.

When I brought Noor (14) a scientific calculator, Mohammed (11) was unhappy. When he protested to his mother, no interpreter was needed to translate, “It’s not fair!”

And that’s the amazing thing: kids are kids. Muslim, Christian, black, white, raised in security or instability. Parents are parents. They want what is good for their children. I’ve seen Abdulkadir reading a story to his kids. I’ve seen him dash down to the sewing machine to take a quick tuck in one of Kosar’s skirts so her younger sister can wear it. I’ve seen him rolling out a ball of dough while Hawa chops vegetables for school lunch samosas. They were delighted by a set of Paderno kitchen knives that would make cooking easier.

Challenges remain. How long will it take to learn budgeting, or the need to arrive at work on time? What trauma of war and danger might yet reveal itself in future? How can we, in one year, share all they need to know?


  • Anne van Arragon

    Anne lives on a farm in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. She is much involved with former Somali refugees now settled in Kentville.

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