30% of adult Syrian refugees in Nova Scotia can't read or write

30% of adult Syrian refugees in Nova Scotia can't read or write

Syrian families learning English in Nova Scotia may face bigger challenges than previously expected, as some adults must learn to read and write for the first time. 

All the newcomers were assessed against Canadian language benchmarks upon arrival. Last week, Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia received the results of those assessments, said Nabiha Atallah, the manager of communications and outreach. 

"Sixty per cent of our new Syrian adults are pre-benchmark — they don't have Level 1," she said. "They would be starting from scratch." 

The assessment also found 30 per cent of the Syrian adults do not read or write in their first language of Arabic.

"Teaching English to people who don't read and write in their first language requires another approach altogether," Atallah said. "It is harder. It takes different strategies."

However, she said ISANS has teachers capable of delivering those classes.

"It's been very effective. We've had a lot of people go through that training program here, and then transfer into regular language classes." 

ISANS offers English as a second language programs and has already added two classes for people of all backgrounds at St. Andrews Recreation Centre on Bayers Road. It has also added six classes specifically for new Syrian families at a central Halifax church. 

Refugees are also going to school board programs in Bedford and Dartmouth. 

But some Syrian refugee families who've settled in the Spryfield area say they need an English class located closer to their home. 

Atallah said ISANS is negotiating contracts for classroom space for the coming year, but could not add more classes without additional funding. Funding for all of the association's language classes comes from the federal government. 

Classes close to home

At a Sunday afternoon gathering hosted by local politicians, 45 families who live in Spryfield had a chance to ask questions and meet other members of the community.

A top concern of families was that some are travelling to Bedford, Dartmouth, or central Halifax for English lessons. Brendan Maguire, the area MLA, said he's heard that some families had to split up and go to different classes due to lack of space.

"It's not easy for the families to be apart, especially in a community that they know nothing about and they're not familiar with the transportation system," he said.

"It's also not easy to probably drag four or five kids with you and separate them. So a big thing is they would like to have a spot where they can all get together as a community and learn English and support each other." 

Maguire said he would work with the municipality to find a space to offer classes and explore whether private language schools could assist with lessons.