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Refugee's success shows potential of young newcomers





In 2011, an orphaned 15-year-old Ethiopian refugee arrived in Winnipeg with just two years of formal education and not a single word of English.

Seven years later, Mintasnot (Minty) Woldamanial was a guest speaker at a recent Newcomer Education Coalition forum, explaining how a teen with so much trauma and so little schooling can saw their potential, pursued an education and became a contributing member of society.

This year, school divisions across Manitoba reported approximately 150 newly arrived students of high school age came with gaps of three years or more in their schooling. Roughly 35 of them had never been to school, according to information provided by Manitoba Education and Training.

Most aren’t getting the early and intensive supports they need to catch up to their peers, said Noelle DePape, co-chairwoman of the Newcomer Education Coalition. Teachers, she said, do their best dealing with multiple demands but are not well-resourced nor prepared through specialized training “to teach 15-year-olds how to read and survive in a totally new world.”

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In 2011, an orphaned 15-year-old Ethiopian refugee arrived in Winnipeg with just two years of formal education and not a single word of English.

Seven years later, Mintasnot (Minty) Woldamanial was a guest speaker at a recent Newcomer Education Coalition forum, explaining how a teen with so much trauma and so little schooling can saw their potential, pursued an education and became a contributing member of society.

This year, school divisions across Manitoba reported approximately 150 newly arrived students of high school age came with gaps of three years or more in their schooling. Roughly 35 of them had never been to school, according to information provided by Manitoba Education and Training.

Most aren’t getting the early and intensive supports they need to catch up to their peers, said Noelle DePape, co-chairwoman of the Newcomer Education Coalition. Teachers, she said, do their best dealing with multiple demands but are not well-resourced nor prepared through specialized training "to teach 15-year-olds how to read and survive in a totally new world."

Manitoba schools have always welcomed students who, as refugees, lacked access to education. However, the numbers have been increasing with a rise in refugee resettlement, the province said.

It’s working with many of the groups that attended the forum Woldamanial spoke at "to improve educational pathways, supports of various kinds, and transitions within the K (to) Grade 12 system and beyond, so that these students can achieve their educational and career goals," the province said.

They could start by making sure newcomer youth know they can keep attending school and earning credits until they’re 21, said Paul Kambaja, a teacher at Grant Park High School who belongs to the Newcomer Education Coalition and is co-chairman of Newcomer Youth Educational Support Services, which organizes summer learning programs and after-school programs.

"They have the right to be in school up until age 21," Kambaja said.

Many leave early, graduating with "E-credits," where subjects are combined with English-language skills. They help high school-aged youth who are learning English get the gist of a subject and its vocabulary, but often aren’t enough to prepare them for post-secondary education, Kambaja said.

"A good number of students want to do better but, to go to college, they don’t have the right tools."

According to Woldamanial, older newcomer students need one-on-one support. He said he wouldn’t have made it through high school without the adults in his corner.

"They’re helping me a lot," said the 22-year-old, referencing a teacher at Fort Richmond Collegiate who directed him to the NEEDS (Newcomers Employment and Education Development Services) Centre downtown for help with his homework.

When Woldamanial got into a fight at school and was expelled, his advocates helped him get into Pembina Trails Alternative High School, where he graduated in 2017. When he showed up at the NEEDS Centre angry after getting robbed on his way from school, youth program team leader Kathleen Vyrauen knew what to do.

"Minty was so mad," said Vyrauen, who has a connection to the Pan Am Boxing Club and arranged for NEEDS program manager Jennifer Tomsich to take him straight there "to calm him down."

Not only did it work, the boxing club welcomed the feisty lightweight into its transitional housing program for youth whose home situation was in turmoil. Now, he’s volunteering as a boxing coach and working two full-time jobs for a water company and a landscaping firm.

"My plan is to work hard, save money and move out by myself," said Woldamanial, adding his goal is to further his education to become a professional boxing coach.

Students such as Woldamanial, who arrive as teens with big gaps in their schooling, need a lot of support to succeed — but the payoff is huge, DePape said.

"If we invest early in our newcomer youth, the return on investment is very high," DePape said.

"They contribute and change this country for the better. But if we continue to fail them, we will all fail and waste a great opportunity to make a difference for now and for the future."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Carol Sanders.


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