Parenting at 40 below: An evening with Syrian Refugee Parents in Manitoba

Each time I go out with a SERC Facilitator to sit in on a group, I expect these sessions should start to look similar; recently it has been dawning on me that truly no two groups are the same. Not just because the content and audiences vary, but also because the participants themselves do. Each group is shaped by the life experiences of those who come to it- an honouring to the true community development approach that SERC uses in its work.

Tonight’s group is a partnership with the Immigrant Centre of Manitoba, who is running sessions Monday and Wednesday evenings for Syrian parents new to Canada. SERC will be doing an 8 week session as part of the Monday group. Etienne, the Director of Programming at the Immigrant Centre, is in attendance and we chat about why she thought it was critical for SERC to do this series. Etienne talks about the numerous challenges that we know many refugee and immigrant parents’ face in acclimatizing to Canadian culture, often coming from countries where parenting is an activity that is shared amongst communities in a very different way. Canada can feel very lonely and isolated; a place where the family unit and neighbourhood support is greatly diminished. This is immediately obvious as I watch how the parents in the group interact easily with all of the children present, providing support and guidance to whoever is in need.

There are about 20 parents (in previous weeks this number has been as high as 40 but we are in the middle of a thunderstorm), and there are possibly as many toddlers in the room (they are always in motion so I lose count). Children over 3 go to a separate space with childcare. It is chaotic; there is a symphony of voices, language, crying and laughing that makes me suspect it may be impossible to have meaningful dialogue. Two interpreters trade off when they need a break. Carola, the SERC Facilitator, for the group starts bringing everyone together by discussing some ground rules and talking about her own immigration experience to Canada almost 20 years ago, with two children at her side.


Carola, who is facilitating tonight’s group

Carola asks the group about challenges they have faced as parents in Canada. I have heard this answer before but never quite so vehemently: they uniformly struggle with preparing their children, and themselves, for what a Winnipeg winter actually feels like. What clothes do they wear? What do they put their children in? How do they get around when it is so cold skin freezes in minutes? These are real issues when you come to a climate like ours from such a different place. No one can truly describe what 40 below feels like.

The challenge of language and cultural differences inevitably comes next; trying to understand Canadian values and norms can be very difficult and quite complex.

Carola asks the parents to take a moment and change their perspective – to try and imagine what the challenges are for their children in coming to Canada. At first they struggle to not identify them as ones different than their own. Carola pressed, asking them to imagine what it is like to try and fit in to a new society when you are so young, to try to balance the culture of their home and their new experiences. For children it can be lonely, and the education system can be different and confusing.

One of our goals for this series is to introduce parents to the health curriculum that their children will be taught in school so that they are prepared when their children come home with knowledge and questions, specifically sexual and reproductive health matters. For many newcomer parents this can be quite concerning. They may be coming from places where sexual and reproductive health are topics not easily discussed, there may be taboo and stigma, there may be resistance to children having this knowledge for religious or cultural reasons, or fear. Carola asks them about their worries, shares that education is so that children will have knowledge about some of the things they are afraid of, specifically the consequences. The goal is to protect health and safety. One parent shares a common concern, “if they know about it they will do it, because they know about it”.

I ponder on this for a bit, as Carola discusses the counterpoint to the argument that youth will learn about sex one way or another we want to make sure that what they hear is correct.

This is not just a conversation happening in groups for immigrant and refugee parents, this debate happens repeatedly in our society when we talk about teaching our children about sexual health. What these parents are facing is not that different then what many Canadian parents do who also want the very best for their children.

I am happy to live in a country like Canada, that values knowledge and equality, and I love that part of my job, alongside so many others, is helping to share, translate and protect these values. I am hopeful that SERC continue to support both new Canadians, and those who are already established, to feel comfortable raising their children in a mutually respectful manner that values knowledge and choice.

We have so much to learn from each other. As they say, it takes a village.