A whole new world

By Trevor J. Adams

Newcomer Amar Singh Kundhi on seeing his children adapt to a Canadian education.

Remember sending your kids off to school for the first time? The nervousness you felt as you wondered how they’d do and if they’d make friends. Imagine how that would have been if you were a newcomer to the country, sending your kids to classes where they wouldn’t understand anything teachers and students said. A school where the sports, food, music, games and a thousand other things were totally alien to them.

Every September, newly arrived families from around the world go through the ordeal as they send their children to Halifax’s schools. Amar Singh Kundhi first had that experience in 2009, when he and his wife Madhuri settled their family in Halifax. A Punjabi and follower of the Sikh faith, Amar is from Anand, in western India. Halifax bears little resemblance to his hometown, but he believes it’s the best place to educate his children.

Photo: Tammy Fancy/Fancyfreefoto.com

Photo: Tammy Fancy/Fancyfreefoto.com

His oldest son, Prem, is eight and currently in Grade 3. Veer is just turning five, and will start school next year. Learning to speak English almost since birth, he’ll have an advantage over his older brother, who began his first year of school unable to understand anything his teachers and classmates said.

Sonja Grcic Stuart is an EAL/ESL consultant with the Halifax Regional School Board (HRSB). The organization works hard to welcome students like Prem. “There is much to teach about the style of learning,” she says. “Learning materials are often very different. Bullying and safe schools are issues.” With the language barrier, immersing students in English is the most effective approach. “Even with limited language skills, they can meet outcomes in subjects like math and the sciences,” Grcic Stuart says. The province offers parents a Newcomers’ Guide to Nova Scotia Schools and YMCA settlement workers are available to help.

Prem had already done a year in Indian schools, so his family noticed many differences when he started school in Halifax. The transition was often jarring, but as Amar explains in the following interview, his son has adapted quickly.

Why did you choose Halifax?
I was working in the Customs Department in India. It was a good job, but there weren’t options to go further in my career. I looked at many options and one was to come work with Canada Customs. First I had to get my citizenship in Canada and apply, write the exam. It would take many years, so I realized I could use the time to do a graduate program in Canada…The Master of Finance program at Saint Mary’s University appealed to me, so I applied for admission there and came straight to Halifax and I graduated last year.

How do you and your family like Halifax?
Halifax is a small but nice—and beautiful—city. The city we came from, Anand in western India, is much bigger…The boys now like [Halifax]. Initially, it was hard for Prem adjusting to school.

What made it hard?
The main problem was the language. He had to learn English beginning in Grade 1 when we came here. Now he’s in Grade 3. At first it was a big change for all of us, but after some time we started liking it.

How difficult was it for him to learn the language?
It took him six [or] seven months to start understanding what the teacher and other students were saying.

How did he get along with the other kids?
Initially when he could not understand and speak with the other kids, there were a few who started teasing him because he could not talk with them. It was not bullying, but he was not liking it when they used to make fun of him. After time, he started talking with them and then it became alright…He likes school now very much because he remembers the school in India. He compares the school system here with India and he prefers this a lot.

What does he like better here?
[Laughs] Oh, everything. Here, there is no homework given to students at his level. In India, there was a lot of homework even before Grade 1…They had to study every day…Most of what he learned there, even before Grade 1, is still not taught here in Grade 2, so he had to learn much more…Here, the teachers make the students interact with them. The way they teach is more like a game. In India, it’s not like that—it’s teaching out of the book. It’s not fun for the kids to learn. Here it is like the students should enjoy—it can be like a sport or a game and they’re learning.

What do your boys do for fun?
Prem wants to play a game that we followed in India, which was very popular there: cricket. But it’s not popular here. Here the games are different, so he wants to try every game. He likes basketball…Now that he can speak and talk with the students, he has friends and there is no problem.

What was it like for you, as his father, watching him adjust to the new school?
It was difficult when he complained that there were students in his class teasing him. That was a difficult time for me. I came to school and I talked to the principal. I asked him to please take care that the students who are teasing him not come close to him. That was the only time I found it difficult. And when he got bad grades. In English he got a 3. That was unusual [laughs].

Was the school helpful in dealing with the issues?
The principal and teachers kept a watch on the boy during lunch and recess…The matter did not have to reach the parents of those boys. A problem like this should be solved within the school itself. And because we were new here, we also felt that maybe language was the problem. They helped him start communicating and the boys stopped teasing him then.

How have your boys adjusted to things like winter here?
Snow was new for all of us…The children easily adapted because they are so young, but we’ve found it hard to adapt because we are grown up and [we were] used to the hot sun in India.

Is Veer looking forward to starting school?
He’s excited because he goes to day care right now while my wife goes to English classes. It’s at the school and he’s there for half the day…He knows what school is now. He likes going there. It’s fun for the children—there are children there he can interact with. At home he’s bored.

And Prem has been trying lots of different sports?
Yes, he likes badminton….I used to play it in India at the national and international level…He likes to play individual games where you can show your skill, where the action depends on you only.

Does he talk about life in India?
He remembers many things of India. He often mentions, “When we go back to India…” He does miss the old things but he likes this place a lot. My parents are there, so he misses them also. All my relatives are there.

How did they react when you decided to leave?
It was a very difficult decision. The only person in favour was my father. He said, “If you are going for further studies in Canada, there is nothing wrong. You never know—you might have a better future there.” The rest of my relatives did not support my decision. They said I had a good job and to start my career again was very risky because I had a family…But Canada is a developed nation and I thought for my children—if they study in the schools here, they can compete anywhere in the world…It would be a struggle for me but my children’s future would be brighter—that’s what I thought.