Syrian parents fight to save Hamilton school at 'heart' of their community

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Syrian parents fight to save Hamilton school at 'heart' of their community

Parents from Hamilton's Syrian refugee community are fighting to save Hess Street Public School from closure. 

Maisoun Akaad is one of several Syrian parents concerned about how the school's potential closure will impact her child's relationship with the Syrian and Muslim communities of Hamilton. 

She says over the last year she has watched her 8-year-old daughter, Luna fall in love with school and feel "connected to her teachers and to her friends" — something she "refused" to do before. 

"We lived in Egypt for three and a half years before we came to Canada and she refused to go and see anybody or to have new friends," Akaad said. 

Now she fears how Luna's life will change if Hess Street school closes. 

More than half of the school's 346 students come from low-income households and three-quarters are either recent immigrants or refugees, according to the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. 

School board staff suggested shuttering the downtown school at the corner of Hess Street North and Cannon Street West last Fall, as part of a six-month accommodation review. 

This recommendation is an "initial option." 

But for many parents the potential closure will pose many challenges.  

"I don't know if she will be happy or we will have troubles with her," Akaad said. "Here she likes her friends, she talks, she changed her character. She can't be shy anymore because the teacher's try to give her confidence about herself and friends like her."

Enise Abdel-Halik is also from Aleppo. Her two sons, aged 6 and 8, have attended this downtown school for the last year. 

Like Akaad, she worries about the emotional impact integrating into a new school will have on her boys.  

"My children suffered a lot moving from country to country," she told CBC News. "My oldest son gets nervous now every time we move from place to place, from school to school."

Abdel-Halik and her family fled Syria five years ago. In that time, they have lived in Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey before coming to Canada.  

Trustees don't understand, advocate says

Anisa Malik works closely with many refugees and other recent immigrants who attend Hess Street school, at the Hamilton-based Circle of Friends for Newcomers. 

The organization provides English-language classes next door to the school. 

Malik says these parent's concerns don't just affect their children, they impact the whole family too because of the "obstacles" recent immigrants and refugees face — including financial, low-income housing availability, accessibility to support services, language barriers and a sense of community. 

"They've been homeless so many times. They've ran away from home, they've been through trauma, and to have changes again and again can have a deep effect on their mental health," she explained. 

"I don't think the trustees and school board understand the obstacles that newcomers have to overcome because they don't have cars, they don't have accessibility to a lot of things."

According to her, the closure of Hess Street school would have a "domino effect on everything in the long-run," for these families. 

If the school closes, Akaad says she will "have two problems, my daughter and older son." 

Her 21-year-old son suffers from depression.

She claims if Luna is forced to change schools they will have to move to a new apartment to be closer to Bennetto Elementary School where Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board plans to funnel Hess Street school students.  

"When I told him we would change our apartment to another one, maybe I lied for him. I said we will get a new apartment with big rooms because if I say we are going to change he will get confused, he will refuse to change," she explained.

"I feel shocked. What should I do? How should I encourage them to start from zero? I don't know what to do." 

'Communities deserve a lot better'

According to school board chair Todd White, the controversy surrounding the potential closure of Hess Street Public School "is meant to be the conversation starter" to develop "numerous options" for trustees to vote on next month.  

A review committee is holding public meetings and proposed five new options for these nine schools last Wednesday. This includes leaving Hess Street school open.  

White says the initial option was "more of a technical report," which focused on data — like conditions of the buildings and enrolment — and left out student achievement and local community factors, like the school's population demographics and surrounding social supports. 

"I think communities deserve a lot better than the initial option," White told CBC News. "My interest is finding something better and stronger for the communities in the area."

The next advisory committee meeting is being held on March 22. This is the last meeting before the recommendations from the accommodation review are presented to the school board trustees.  

In this time, parents from Hess Street Public School's Syrian refugee community are making their voices heard. 

​"I hope people will listen to us and understand our problems that we are facing as newcomers," Akaad said. "We get used to our friends, the area, to community around us, and it's a problem for us to restart again after one year."