From Syria, from Vietnam, from Eritrea, from Philippines. Each of the hundreds of students who have arrived in Saskatoon Public Schools in recent years has their own story but when it comes to why they feel welcome in Canada the response is unanimous — their school and their classmates.
During the 2016-17 school year a group of English as an Additional Language (EAL) students from École Alvin Buckwold School and Walter Murray Collegiate shared their welcome to Canada experience in a video production entitled With Open Arms Canada 150.
The three-minute film features students sharing their answer to the question: What made you feel welcome when you came to Canada? Almost without exception their replies echo the words of Eiram Gonzales.
"I felt welcome to Canada because of my school Alvin Buckwold and also because of my classmates. They were really nice to me and they welcomed me to Canada," Gonzales says in the video.
Laura Jorgenson, an EAL teacher at Walter Murray, says the experiences shared by students in the film illustrate the important role played by schools.
"I think the strongest one I saw is they really love school. That's the one that jumped out at me. They kept saying: 'We love school. We love our teachers. We love our friends. The school made us feel welcome,' " she said.
In addition to sharing their thoughts on their welcome to Canada as part of the film, students also proudly announce "I am Canadian" while holding up the phrase written in their home language.
With Arms Wide Open is the result of a collaboration by Jorgenson and fellow teacher Levana Dutertre of Alvin Buckwold that involved approximately 14 elementary and a dozen high school students during the course of the school year. Its message struck a chord with judges at the Yorkton Film Festival who awarded it first place in the children's and youth film competition, a category added to this year's festival to celebrate Canada's 150th anniversary.
The film is the latest in a series of collaborative efforts between the two teachers and their students. In previous years Jorgenson and Dutertre worked with students to create a dual-language picture book, a dual-language cookbook of global recipes and, in 2016, the book "Impressions of Canada: Photos Through a Newcomer's Lens" that featured student photographs and stories of their Canadian experience.
Their projects build connections by bringing together elementary and high school new Canadian students. For Jorgenson's high school students, many of whom were just beginning to learn English, the opportunity to join with younger students who speak the same home language creates an immediate bond.
"I feel it really gives them a sense of connection because they can help the younger kids. The younger kids talk to them, they feel like they are successful in this project in both languages," she said. "It's good for (younger students) because they see what high school is like and when they come here they already have buddies."
The EAL classrooms and teachers in Saskatoon Public Schools are an integral part of creating a welcoming school community for students, with more than 1,800 elementary and 800 high school students receiving support to learn English during the 2016-17 school year. Language and communication are a primary focus, but the EAL classroom also provides a home base as students learn to navigate not only their school and city but also Canadian culture.
"We always say we have the best job," Dutertre said. "Our students come in and they are so excited to be with us in EAL. It is their safe place, they have their peers who may speak the same language or have the same religion. We get to teach them for multiple years and we get to know the families. They want to be here."
"It gets them ready to go out into the big school and integrate," Jorgenson says of how the experience benefits her high school students. "It's where they get to meet their friends and learn the skills that are necessary to be successful in their other classes."
The technology used to create the film helped engage students in the project and the chance to enter it in competition created additional excitement. The first opportunity to view the finished product produced a buzz among the students who were involved, but Jorgenson said it was nothing compared to finding out that it had won the award.
"They couldn't believe it. Some couldn't even watch, and they were giggling, but then they would go and tell their friends and the friends would want to come in a watch," she said. "And when they won they were all hugging me and they went out in the hallway and were telling people. They were so thrilled."
Jorgenson and Dutertre want those who view the video understand how genuinely happy and appreciative the students and their families are to be in Canada.
"I hope that they take away that the newcomers to this country are extremely thankful and genuine about being here and that your schools are doing a great job of making these kids and their families feel welcome," Jorgenson said. "Canada has arms wide open and we are doing a good job of setting Canada up for success if we have kids like these that are genuine and really trusting and thankful. They really want to be a part of it."
"Most of them have chosen Canada," Dutertre added "and all they are trying to do is to make a better life for themselves and their children. They are hopeful. They are not here for any other reason than that. They want their kids to happy and healthy and safe."