By Tara Carman, the Vancouver Sun | Link to Article
Canada is a world leader in integrating immigrant children into the school system and a delegation from Sweden was in Vancouver this week to study what this country's doing right.
"We very much want to hear ... what are you doing to be so successful?" said delegation leader Jaana Sandberg, development manager at Gothenburg's Centre for School Development. "Some of your top students are immigrants. That's not common in Sweden."
Sandberg said the delegation chose Canada as a destination because she had read a lot about this country's success in integrating immigrants who speak many languages and the relative abundance of government and community resources available to help. The group of 29, which includes education officials, social workers and local politicians from Sweden's second city of Gothenburg, spent time in Toronto before coming to Vancouver.
The delegation spent a recent morning at the Vancouver school board's District Reception and Placement Centre, which is the first point of contact with the school system for immigrant families.
They were particularly interested in what Vancouver is doing to help refugee children succeed. Sweden has no equivalent of Canada's points system, under which immigrants with desirable attributes such as language skills and professional credentials are able to enter the country more easily than others. Sweden admits a higher proportion of refugees, many of whom are fleeing conflict in countries such as Somalia and Iraq, Sandberg said. Some are children who arrive on their own, are placed in boarding houses and struggle terribly to adapt to the school system and the new country, she said.
The delegates paid particular attention to former refugee Charles Okumu Lomudak's account of fleeing conflict in his native Sudan and going to extraordinary lengths - taking the bus for hours from a Khartoum displaced persons' camp and cleaning toilets in Ethiopia because he couldn't afford the school fees - to pursue an education. He was eventually admitted to Canada and now works for the Vancouver school board as a settlement worker, helping new immigrants make the same transition.
The board's Engaged Immigrant Youth Program encourages immigrant youth, especially refugees, to stay in school and helps them pursue higher education or employment, program coordinator Jennifer Reddy told the delegates. Sometimes this means getting creative and partnering with outside organizations to bring immigrant and Canadian-born students together on projects that interest them.
For example, the program recently teamed up with REEL Canada and the Canadian Red Cross to help students create a short clay animation film about online bullying. The program also organizes events, such as hiking trips, that are not overly reliant on language skills, Reddy said.
Maria Bergström, head of operations for Gothenburg's social welfare department, said she was surprised by the extent to which community organizations are involved with immigrant youth and how many activities take place outside school hours.
In Sweden, all contact with students is during school time, she said.
"To have a social network is one of the most important things in a new country."
Hampus Magnusson and Robert Hammarstrand are deputy mayors of Gothenburg from opposite sides of the political spectrum, but they agree that Sweden must learn to emulate Canada's cultural norm of seeing the skills immigrants bring to the country as an asset.
"Although we have many immigrants, we are not used to handling different cultures because we are a homogeneous people," Hammarstrand said.
"We tend to see immigrants not as a problem, but [like] they are weak and we must help them. Instead, we must empower them and focus on their talents and their abilities."
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