Lost in translation: language biggest barrier for newcomer families navigating school system

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Nour Al Masri was so excited to go back to school that she couldn’t sleep the night before.

She hugged her new backpack close as she lay in bed imagining what her first day of school will look like. Her younger brother Aktham proudly said he was the only one of his siblings who didn’t take his new backpack to bed.

The parents are happy their five children have the opportunity for an education. But the school year is always a stressful time for the Syrian family who came to Halifax almost three years ago.

“The school sent us the supply list and we didn’t know what to buy,” said Mohammad Al Masri, Nour’s father.


Mohammad and his wife Fatema speak very little English and Google Translate, said Fatema, is useless most of the time.

Figuring out what supplies to get is one task made more difficult by the language barrier for newcomer families with school-aged children. Communicating with the school bus or the principal when a child can’t come to school can also become a burden with no one to help.

During their first year in Halifax, a miscommunication almost cost Fatema and Mohammad their children.

At the time, the family found themselves between a rock and a hard place when Nour fell ill and was hospitalized. Mohammad had to be with her at the hospital leaving Fatema, who was pregnant with their fifth child, alone to care for Aktham and his younger sisters Salsabeel and Rital.

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“I was new to the country. I didn’t know anyone,” said Fatema.

Mohammad’s absence meant Fatema was the one responsible for taking the children to school. The family’s efforts to get them a spot on the school bus were fruitless. With Rital being a toddler and Fatema suffering from exhaustion, the transit trip to school seemed impossible some days.

“It’s not that we didn’t want the children to go to school. We were so happy they could go,” said Mohamad. “(But) there were days when we couldn’t take them.”

An interpreter who worked with the family in the past called the school to explain why the children were not coming. But Fatema could tell there something was lost in translation when she was told that child welfare might get involved.

“I was having a hard time … but instead of giving me hope, they were disappointing me. It was too much,” said Fatema.

It wasn’t until Fatima went to her children’s school and met with the YMCA school settlement worker Zobeida Al-Zobeidy that the confusion was cleared up.

“They helped us so much. Without them, I don’t know what our situation would have been.”

Al-Zobeidy is now the family’s lifeline at school, said Mohammad, and her presence is important for many Syrian families around him.

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She was the first person they thought of when they needed someone to translate the school supply list and they were not disappointed. Fatema said she was relieved when Al-Zobeidy sent them photos of items whose names they didn’t recognize.

She was also one of few resources the family could access to understand the ever-changing public health information and school guidelines throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

The YMCA’s school settlement program has been a resource for newcomer families navigating the school system since 1992. The program, which started as a homework club, expanded to include 17 workers stationed in 37 schools across the Halifax Regional Municipality.

Settlement workers work at the schools during the day, providing a link between parents and their children’s school. One worker could be responsible for one or more schools depending on how many newcomer children there are.

Close to 1,000 clients are registered in the program for 2021, according to Achala Hewaarachchi, the program’s acting coordinator.

“Language is the most common barrier for quite a bit of newcomer families we receive,” she said.

The technological gap was also a hindrance for families registering their children this school year. Hewaarachchi said school settlement staff worked with clients through the online registration process and explained the documents needed.

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The lack of access to computers, Wi-Fi, and the knowledge required to use them put many families in a difficult position during the pandemic.

Habtom Gebremariam’s family was one of those without computers when schools went online in 2020. Originally from Eritrea, they were refugees in Ethiopia before coming to Halifax in February 2019.

The YMCA provided them with two laptops that the children used to attend class and do their homework. The only remaining obstacle was the spotty Wi-Fi, which only seemed to work well in the living room.

“My father had an online class too… So, all of us were here. We can’t hear what my teacher was saying, and they couldn’t hear what their teacher was saying,” said Filmawit, the family’s eldest daughter.

The laptops came in handy when the Gebremariams’ school settlement worker, Darinka Kapor, invited them to join an online reading club to help newcomer children improve their English.

The children now share one laptop. The limited number of laptops, which were donated to the YMCA a couple of years ago, means many families don’t get one, said Kapor.

She said more donations are needed to fill the demand.


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