Welcome Centre helps new immigrant & refugee students and families with life in school and beyond
The district’s Welcome Centre is more than just an introduction to Surrey Schools for new immigrant and refugee students – it’s a community hub for newcomer families and often one of their first stops when adjusting to life in Canada.
The Welcome Centre offers an extensive range of support services for students and their families to ease their integration into the school system and community. These services include educational programs for students entering a new school or transitioning to adulthood, 10 school-based multicultural workers for in-class assistance, ELL (English Language Learner) assessments and adult English classes for parents, among other programs to help them in and out of school.
“We look after all of their settlement needs,” said Raj Puri, district principal of settlement services. “Everything from helping them with housing to employment to basic needs like taking the bus or SkyTrain, finding medical care, services that are available in the community.
“A lot of everyday things that we sometimes take for granted may be absolutely new to somebody coming to Surrey for the first time.”
The centre has 28 settlement workers who speak more than 30 languages – from Arabic to Vietnamese to Russian to Swahili – and two certified translators to serve the Chinese and South Asian communities, all working to assist their diverse clientele. The bridge program for new secondary students alone has more than 130 youth this year from countries such as Afghanistan, Ukraine, Somalia and India.
Parampal Sharma, the new manager of the Welcome Centre, comes from a settlement background, having worked for 27 years in a port-of-entry program at Vancouver International Airport to welcome people new to Canada. She said the centre is the result of an important partnership between the district, the federal government and community organizations, to help newcomers and refugees thrive and build strong connections in Surrey.
“We want to see where the gaps are, not just with the children but with families, and be able to deliver services through one-on-one supports and in group settings,” said Sharma. “We want to give them tools and techniques to help them adjust, adapt and integrate. We want to support them in building a sense of belonging in the community, and doing that through the school system is a really wonderful model.”
Program coordinator Candy Metcalfe said the centre also offers vulnerable youth programs and serves to address communication issues, language barriers and cultural differences.
“A lot of students who come from refugee backgrounds may have gone through interrupted schooling experiences, some of them have not gone to school in a long time,” she said. “Getting familiar with what the Canadian classroom looks like is a big deal for them.”
As a refugee who came to Canada from Burma in 2004, Metcalfe understands the experience of coming to a new country and the immense challenges other refugees and immigrants face. She also said she’s amazed at their ability to overcome adversity, and how many Welcome Centre clients want to help others the same way they were helped.
“I find it really inspiring when I see refugees who were trying to just survive in their first year, and then a year later, they come back to us and say, ‘Can I volunteer? I want to give back to the community,’” she said. “That is the most rewarding for me.”
“This work is very humbling, to see the struggles these families have endured before arriving,” added Sharma. “These are brave and resilient folks.”
Puri said the longstanding connection between the Welcome Centre and many of its clients over the years is a testament to the settlement workers, multicultural workers, translators and other staff who make the district and Surrey an inviting place for newcomers.
“Our staff really work hard to establish a relationship with families, and that relationship creates a level of trust,” he said. “We’re a valuable resource for inclusion, we’re a diverse community and we play a small part in helping with that transition.
“When I see the work that our staff is doing to help them experience success, that is priceless.”
To learn more about the Welcome Centre, visit their official website.