Edmonds principal pens book of refugee students' family stories
David Starr listened, amazed.
Two women, parents of students at Byrne Creek secondary where he was vice-principal, told him of the harrowing journey they made as 14-year-old girls in Sudan. They had been forced from their school during the civil war and ended up walking from South Sudan to Ethiopia and eventually into Kenya where they were taken in at a refugee camp.
The two women, cousins, ended up being separated only to be reunited again years later in Burnaby.
"It's like Hollywood movie kind of stuff," said Starr, now principal at Edmonds Community School.
Hearing that story five years ago inspired Starr to take it further, especially after learning that many refugee parents wanted their stories to be told.
Some told him they wanted to share their stories "so the world knows what happened" in their war-torn homelands. Others wanted to honour the memories of friends and families that were lost along the way. Still others wanted to tell the story of the community, Edmonds school in particular which, like most inner-city schools, tends to be defined by outsiders.
"It's always important for a school like ours to be able to tell our own story."
The result is a book released last month, "From Bombs to Books: Refugee children, their families, and an exceptional Canadian school," penned by Starr himself.
The publisher, Lorimer, was "very interested" when Starr pitched the idea for his book. "They got back to me, from what I've been told, in record time."
It's already temporarily sold out at amazon.ca. Starr has won writing competitions before but this is his first book.
He said part of his motivation behind the work was to highlight the great work being done by teachers and resource staff to help Edmonds students succeed in their new country. Edmonds teaches the same material as other Burnaby schools, but requires a few more resources, such as counsellors and community workers, to provide the kids with "equity of opportunity," he stressed.
Many of the refugee children hadn't been in school for years and yet they are the most enthusiastic of learners, he said, recalling a boy who copied pages of a library book by hand. He couldn't yet read but wanted to learn to write. Children who arrive with no English are carrying out conversations within six to seven weeks.
The book is also a tribute to Elin Horton, the school's former head teacher who died of cancer last year. Even when teachers visited her in hospice, she was still asking about Edmonds students, he said. "She was the beating heart of this place."
But the real heroes in the book are the eight families whose stories are told, he said.
"These amazing people, who have come here against remarkable odds, to get their kids into school."
Often, once the refugee families arrive in Burnaby, they settle into a home, register their children at Edmonds school, then the parents register for English classes themselves at the Edmonds Resource Centre next door.
The families place a huge value on education and, according to their high school records after leaving Edmonds, they score highly, with 60 to 70 per cent of their grades being As or Bs and a 90 to 95 per cent pass rate.
Perhaps most reaffirming for Starr is that all the families felt they were made to feel welcome in Canada, saw the importance of learning English and of contributing to the community. "And without exception they said getting citizenship was the proudest day of their lives.
"It's reaffirming that once you get beyond the negative headlines, that the system works," Starr said. "The families value the opportunity to be here and want to contribute."