The Syrian refugees that arrived in Halifax recently have all been placed in permanent housing and the services provided by the YMCA at the temporary accommodation centre continue in 29 schools and in community centres.More than 20 YMCA settlement staff rotated shifts between the temporary accommodation and school sites delivering specialized programming for the children while working side by side with Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS) to help to ease their transition.

“We created an atmosphere of a school, providing Syrian students with activities to support academic skill development, including sitting at work areas, practicing the alphabet and learning common English words,” said Heba Megahid, a recently hired, Arabic-speaking YMCA settlement staff person.

Megahid shared that the Syrian families have minimal English proficiency and were relieved to have someone who spoke Arabic to help interpret and translate basic school information about the registration process to ensure a smoother transition for the children as they started school.

“On the first day of school when the families I worked with at the temporary accommodation saw me at the gate welcoming the children, they were very thankful to see a familiar face and to know I was there to help,” said Megahid.

YMCA school settlement staff member Mile Mitrovic, who also worked with the children at the temporary site, was another familiar face for the 39 Syrian students attending Duc d’Anville Elementary School.

“He helps them understand the expectations at school, provides support and guidance and helps adjust to life in public school,” said Ken Rutley, principal at Duc d’Anville.

A YMCA focus is to help children fit in and make friends in their school communities. Mitrovich leads a YMCA afterschool karate club that was a popular activity choice for eight of the new Syrian students. The students shared through translator Fadia Ismail, coordinator of the YMCA school settlement program, that it’s been difficult to make friends because of the language barrier but participating in the club has made them feel a part of something and is helping them learn English.

“I love being in Canada, it feels much safer than where I’ve been,” added a sixth grade girl who arrived in February.

“For the most part they have adapted well to their school environment,” said Rutley. “We are lucky to have other students who are able to translate for the new students.” Many children of different nationalities who have experienced the life of a newcomer student are eager to support their peers, according to Rutley.

In the first quarter of 2016, the number of child and youth clients served daily by YMCA Immigrant Services increased from 900 to 1,400. To meet the needs of the Syrian Refugees, additional Arabic speaking staff members were hired and school settlement programs expanded to four additional sites.

“Our team has helped with the initial settlement of approximately 800 Syrian refugees who are now integrating into new schools and communities in metro and across Nova Scotia,” said Barbara Miller Nix, YMCA chief operating officer, who oversees Immigrant Programs. Miller Nix is also a founding member of the Advisory Committee for the Halifax Local Immigration Partnership (LIP) and chairs the LIP Social and Cultural Inclusion subcommittee.

Senior manager of YMCA immigrant services Jennifer Thornhill pioneered the development of outreach activities for immigrant and refugee youth in 1992 and helped to launch the on-site school settlement program in 1996.

“As one of the first organizations in the country to offer this type of service to immigrants, we know children and youth have unique and specific settlement needs that are different from those of their parents,” said Thornhill. “Building relationships of trust with children, youth, parents and community partners is the foundation of our approach to working with this vulnerable client group.”

“We were part of the YMCA from day one,” said Saeed El-Darahali, CEO of Simply Cast in Dartmouth and a self-professed ‘Y-Kid’, who at the age of 12, arrived in Canada from Kuwait in 1992. El-Darahali, had no language skills when he first arrived and says he learned to speak English at the YMCA. “They were the only ones helping immigrants at the time.”