Mohammed Yanes is fairly new in town. At 20 years old, he immigrated to Halifax from Syria six months ago, and he’s been hard at work settling in ever since.
“It’s very different from Syria,” says Yanes, whose first language is Arabic, and is the only member of his family to know any English. “Here, you need to take your time to learn a lot of things in Canada, because it’s a different place in the world. You need to learn English, and a lot of things.”
Those other things Yanes has to learn are things most of us take for granted – how to hail a cab, for example. Or how to go about finding a family doctor. Or getting your driver’s license.
Those things are all done a bit differently in Syria, as well as in many other cultures around the world, and here in Nova Scotia, you pretty much need to speak English to navigate all of those mundane parts of life and more.
Yanes is taking English classes, but lucky for him, he gets to practice what he learns once a week with the help of his English tutor Kevin Hall, a volunteer with the Halifax Public Library’s English Language Learning Program.
“The last couple of meetings, we’ve done a little bit of grammar stuff that Mohammed has brought in from the schoolwork that he’s doing,” says Hall, a retired IT professional. “Today, we’re talking about listening skills. That’s one area he wants to improve on.”
Volunteers like Hall are paired with students like Yanes for one-on-one weekly sessions, where the tutor sets up casual lesson plans in areas of the language and communication skills their students have identified needing help with. Tutors also help them to understand the cultural differences they face, as well.
“Every student is approaching their transition into this country a little bit differently,” says Hall. “This helps to augment their experience here a little bit, in terms of dealing with day-to-day scenarios and situations a little bit better.”
“It’s very important to come here, to have a tutor,” says Yanes. “Then, you begin to start your new life.”
But for many people like Yanes who have moved or will soon be moving into neighbourhoods across HRM, they might have to wait a while for such tutor – that is, if the library can’t scrounge up a few more volunteers soon.
The library’s English Language Learning Program is currently offered at six branches – Alderney Gate, Bedford, Keshen Goodman, Woodlawn, Halifax North Memorial, and Central. Branches near neighbourhoods where many Syrian refugees would be moving to are where the bulk of these sessions take place, but with 300 people registered for the program, even they have names on waiting lists.
It was when the folks at the library caught wind that about 50 refugees would be moving to Halifax North, however, that they knew they were going to need a lot of new volunteers to meet demand.
“We’re trying to keep on top of that, and respond to the needs that we think may be coming from all the new refugee folks,” says Heather MacKenzie, Manager of Diversity and Accessibility with Halifax Public Library. “Originally, Halifax North wasn’t one of the key target communities - we had heard that the Clayton Park area, Spryfield, and also North Dartmouth were going to be the three main communities where they were going to be settling.”
ELL program coordinators work to match students with the best possible tutors, and they have certain qualities they look for in prospective volunteers – experience teaching, high level of cultural competency, patience and understanding, etc. This means that there’s a vetting process for volunteers to go through, so the library is hoping people reach out now, before demand exceeds capacity.
“We haven’t seen that spike in demand just yet, because these people are still arriving,” says MacKenzie. “We’re always looking for good new volunteers, and right now, we may be looking for more than normal. So we’re certainly wanting to get the word out there.”
“I think that it’s mutually rewarding. For the tutors, it’s a rewarding experience as well,” adds Hall. “You learn a lot about different cultures, and that’s fascinating. That makes us better people, to understand different cultures and different languages. That makes us all better at accepting and being more tolerant.”
They’ve already gotten a few calls from people interested in volunteering thanks to a post on Facebook, but for the rest of the folks they need, consider this a call to action. If you’re interested in helping a newcomer learn the ins and outs of life in Halifax, don’t hesitate to give MacKenzie a call.
“I think a lot of people are looking for ways that they can help,” says MacKenzie. “I absolutely have great faith that we will be able to meet the need, and get the folks in to work with us.”
And if you need any more incentive to spare a few hours of your time a week, Yanes has a good reason why.
“Why? Because you’re helpful,” says Yanes. “Helpful for the people.”
You can contact MacKenzie at 902-490-5744. If one-on-one tutorship isn’t your style, there’s also a need for volunteers with group conversation classes as well.