When Usman Khan arrived in Vancouver from Pakistan in 2015 with hopes for a better education, he didn’t realize how difficult it would be to fulfill his dreams.
Khan graduated from John Oliver Secondary School in 2016 after re-doing Grade 11 at an adult education centre in Vancouver. With the ambition of becoming an engineer, he applied to Langara College and the University of British Columbia. However, he did not have all the necessary prerequisites or required grades to qualify. School advisers gave him conflicting information and their advice was not tailored to his unique situation.
“People tried to help me but in a way that they would have helped other Canadian students,” said Khan. “[But] my grades and my courses and everything were different. Nothing they told me would apply to me and it just wouldn’t work.”
Khan’s struggle is a familiar one for immigrants and refugees in Canada, said Jennifer Reddy, a former educator with the Vancouver School Board. For eight years, she witnessed firsthand the challenges faced by young immigrants and refugees as they enter adulthood.
What troubled Reddy most was that all of the cultural and academic services offered by the district disappeared once students aged out of public school. Support students had come to rely on from language instructors, cultural liaison officers and settlement workers in schools was not replaced with anything comparable.
“There isn’t a service that is capturing what’s happening,” said Reddy. “Not only a service but people who are listening to what’s happening. And I think that’s the biggest thing — just being a listener to their realities and their lived experience.”
When students turn 19 in British Columbia they are no longer of “school age” under the provincial School Act. Those who haven’t completed their diplomas are pushed into an adult system which has suffered drastic funding cuts over the last five years. The number of adult-education centres in Vancouver has been reduced from five to two during that time.
Even after they graduate, students receive little guidance when it comes time to apply for university or college.
Many fall through the cracks and settle for menial jobs and unfulfilled dreams, said Reddy.
“The risk is that they’re just floating in the air. They’re not associated with any service anymore, they’re not associated with an organization,” said Reddy. “I worry most about the kids that I know didn’t graduate and I don’t know where they are now.”
Help on their own terms
Now Reddy has teamed up with a group of educators and five immigrants and refugees — all former students she met during her time in the Vancouver school district — to create a grassroots organization aimed at helping newcomers navigate an education system that can seem daunting.
EdMeCo is a volunteer-run organization bringing together educators, mentors and students to provide immigrants and refugees over the age of 19 with personalized support.
In the days leading up to EdMeCo’s launch in October, Reddy interviewed students she met during her tenure at the district to explore the obstacles that prevent them from graduating high school.
“What were the systems they tried to use, what were the barriers and what would they like to change? So I did all that research to build my understanding of what the issue was,” said Reddy, who works at Simon Fraser University’s Leadership and Community Building Program.
EdMeCo starts from the premise that each young person’s settlement journey is unique — some are now Canadian citizens — so support needs to be individually designed to ensure members can fulfill their career goals in a new country.
The organization also tutors and guides young people hoping to complete their high-school diplomas or continue on to post-secondary education.
“Tutoring could look like sitting down with an educator to tackle English 11 homework or to get ready for an essay or prepare for an exam,” explained Reddy. “It could be you’re in college or university and you need that same level of support that’s one on one.”
EdMeCo recognizes many young people work long hours and cannot always afford a bus pass, so volunteers visit them at a location closest to their workplace or home.
Currently, there are six mentors and more than a 25 young people involved with the organization.
From ideas to action
The team is already helping newcomers make the most of their educational and career opportunities.
Yaser Amiri arrived in 2015 as a refugee from Afghanistan with little formal education and virtually no English. He entered Grade 12 at Sir Charles Tupper Secondary Secondary School but was unable to complete his high-school diploma by the time he turned 19.
“My goal was to get my diploma, go to the Justice Institute of BC,” said Amiri. “I wanted to be a [police] officer, but life doesn’t go the way you want it to sometimes.”
Instead of completing his high-school credits, Amiri helped provide for his family of six and joined his father working full-time at a Vancouver automotive collision centre. He enjoyed the job and decided to sign up for an automotive refinishing course at Vancouver Community College so he could earn more money. But the application process was daunting and Amiri soon became discouraged.
When Reddy heard about Amiri’s situation, she encouraged him to enrol and helped guide him through the registration process, assisting him with the online application and accompanying him to the registrar’s office.
With her help, he completed the course. The guidance provided by Reddy was crucial to Amiri’s success.
“If EdMeCo weren’t there, I think I couldn’t get the first certificate from VCC because once you’ve lost your hope or your motivation, you need someone to help you, someone to push you,” said Amiri.
Amiri plans to take a painting course in August and has his sights set on opening a family shop in the future.
Khan, now in the second year of Langara’s engineering-transfer program, is also well on his way to achieving his goals. In his spare time, he volunteers with EdMeCo to help others avoid some of the problems he faced. “Being a newcomer, if there had been someone who had guided me through the process, or given me some useful hints …. that would have helped.”