On Thursday afternoons, once the last bell rings, there is a rush of feet and the buzz of excited chatter as elementary school kids stampede down the hallways, heading for the bright sunshine beckoning through the open front doors. Left behind are empty hallways and the fading echoes of the day’s lessons. School is out for the day and the building is left still and quiet, empty of the kids that brought life to it.

Except at McArthur Elementary School, there is a very special energy and enthusiasm that remains, even after the last bell rings. Every Thursday, members of the Conversation Club gather after all the other kids have gone home. The Conversation Club, an integration program for Syrian children, was adapted and implemented by BGCBigs very own Sentsetsa Pilane, who saw the need for it. She observed the influx of Syrian refugees to Edmonton and knew that language and a lack of community would be a barrier for positive and healthy integration. She reached out to almost 20 schools, and 11 principals responded by attending a forum to discuss integration strategies. Their feedback was loud and clear. All expressed a need for in-school support.

BGCBigs has afterschool programs throughout the city, so it worked out naturally to implement the Conversation Club in schools that BGCBigs already had connections with. Lack of funding reduced the possible choices to only two schools, an elementary school and a junior high school. Sentsetsa, knowing that language would be the largest barrier to overcome, reached out to the Islamic Academy of Edmonton. They were thrilled to work with BGCBigs by providing Arabic speaking mentors for the program. When they began the program last year, only 7 high school kids volunteer for the mentoring program. This year, that number has tripled.

When I visited the program, I was greeted by bright, curious, smiling faces. I was immediately welcomed into their space and engaged in an intense game of connect 4. The enthusiasm of the kids was infectious as they each, in turn, asked in me in thickly accented English what my name was. They were delightful.

I visited with little 9 year-old Joshi*. Before coming to Canada, Joshi and her family lived in Lebanon for 2 years, before that, Syria. When they finally reached Canada the only English she knew were the names of some colors and animals. Despite the obvious hardships her family had endured, I observed no hint of them in her demeanor. She was happy and open and hopeful. I asked her if she liked living in Canada to which she replied, “yes, yes! It is so big!”

The mentors at the program shared with me that at the beginning of the program Joshi was timid and reserved. Now, she is boisterous and happy. She aspires to become a doctor someday, telling me that she wants to “learn about what makes you sick, and help the sick people.” It’s not a big surprise considering that the mentors are bright, ambitious young adults with aspirations of their own. Many of them are already accepted to the program of their choice at secondary institutions. It’s clear that the mentors have impacted these young children. They’ve provided role models and a community for the kids, a safe place to take risks and make mistakes.

Joshi is only one of many children the Conversation Club has helped. As her English has improved in an atmosphere of inclusiveness and support, the young girl has blossomed into a hopeful and happy child. Sentsetsa is proud of what they’ve accomplished in the Conversation Club. Her hope for the program was that it improve language skills, provide a sense of belonging, and fill young kids with hope for the future. It’s clear to me that it has done that and more.

Thank you to Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada for your support of our Conversation Club program!

This blog post was written by Attena Keeler, a BGCBigs volunteer and student at MacEwan University

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