For many new Syrians settling on P.E.I., learning English is the first step to becoming independent and successful in their new home — but going to school for mothers who have young children can be difficult.
To help solve the challenges of childcare, a group of volunteers with the Interfaith Refugee Sponsorship Group in Charlottetown set up a school specifically for mothers with babies and toddlers.
"We've gone back to the basics, the alphabet, words, speaking and writing. It's amazing how much they're learning," said Carol Lang, one of the volunteer coordinators.
Toddlers and textbooks
The group started as a coffee club to give Syrian mothers the chance to socialize and build new friendships.
Volunteers took the mothers grocery shopping and spent time with them, sewing and baking.
The volunteers quickly realized the best way to empower the Syrian women was to teach them English, and the Thursday morning get-togethers became English language tutoring sessions where Syrian mothers could bring their young children while they learned.
"It was difficult at the beginning but the people here are nice and very helpful," said Taghreed Muhrat, who brings her two daughters — 4-year-old Shahed and 8-month-old Masa — to the sessions.
'We feel warmly welcomed'
"They are trying to immerse us with the Canadian culture and that helps a lot, to be part of society here," said Muhrat.
"We feel warmly welcomed. My children are very happy here. They love going to school."
The group meets weekly at Trinity United and St. Paul's Anglican Church in Charlottetown.
The mothers work on learning English with their tutors in the church hall, while volunteers play with the children.
'A bit hectic at times'
Sometimes the tutors even bounce the babies on their lap as they're teaching their mothers.
"It can be a bit hectic at times because the children are getting older and they want to chase each other around," said Lang.
"But basically it works, and I love to see one of the volunteers teaching English with a baby on their lap. That's kind of a sweet picture."
The volunteers are happy to see the women's progress.
'It's wonderful to see'
"It will help them to integrate to be able to go to the school and talk to teachers and understand what the doctor is saying so it will give them the power to live here and be well integrated," said tutor Liesbet Hanssens.
"It's wonderful to see. If we didn't have this group most of the women would just stay at home. They do visit each other, but they wouldn't go out very often."
When the volunteers first met with the women, they were very shy and didn't speak much English.
"They did not say a word, " said Hanssens. "Now when you just come in the room they will look at you with a smile on their face. They will talk to you, ask how you are. You can have a conversation with them."
Tutoring continues at home
In addition to the Thursday classes, each Syrian mother is matched with a volunteer tutor who comes to her house once a week.
Having one-on-one tutoring sessions at home helps the mothers learn faster and strengthens the friendship between students and tutors.
"In the Syrian culture, when someone visits you in your home, you feel that you have them as a friend," said Raeda Alhassan, who is originally from Syria and volunteers as an interpreter for the group.
"Most of them are happy together. It's a good, good matching between them."
'Women helping women'
The women share coffee and sweets during the tutoring sessions, and sometimes the Syrian mothers make traditional food to share with the volunteers.
"Women helping women," said Alhassan. "It's a brilliant idea from the church to get them together in this way."
Sometimes the Syrian mothers even make special food from their culture to share with the volunteers.
"I feel that if they succeed, the community succeeds and the country as a whole will succeed," said Darlene Doiron, who helps take care of the children.
Doiron sees volunteering as a small thing she can do to help her new neighbours.
'P.E.I. is reaching back'
"I have to admire the courage to come and start a whole new life, new country, new culture, new language, new everything," said Doiron.
"I know for some of them it was a pretty terrible situation at home and they had to reach for something better and I'm glad that P.E.I. can offer them something better. It's nice to know that P.E.I. is reaching back."
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