Every Saturday, at the U of T St. George campus, workshops are organized by the Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations – Cultural Exchange and Support Initiative, which is a volunteer effort started by a group of students and faculty at the U of T NMC department. Since February 2015, this initiative provides newcomer Syrian youth with educational resources to help with their language acquisition, assist those willing to continue their education, and allow them to mingle with Canadian society through an engaging cultural exchange program.

It all started at the Plaza hotel in Toronto, where many refugees stayed upon their arrival. Last January, Rasha Elendari, the president and co-founder of NMC-CESI, reached out to Syrian youth living there, and informed them about the program. From there it grew.

The workshop takes place every Saturday from 12:00 p.m to 3:00 p.m., where co-founders Elendari and Rob Martin, and their team consisting of volunteers who may be fluent Arabic speakers or those interested in learning Arabic, meet the Syrian youth with a script. The script acts as a dialogue that undergoes translation from both the Syrian youth and non-Arabic-speaking volunteers, acting as an exchange of knowledge of their fluently-spoken language. Those who are fluent Arabic speakers with a different dialect than the Syrian one have the chance to learn a new dialect.

The script is not just a dialogue to help both the volunteers and Syrian youth get the hang of the English and Arabic languages. The script also serves as a gateway to help the Syrian refugees understand what it’s like to live in a Canadian society.

One of the scripts focuses on Canadian law, which is not only a great way to help them understand the rules of the country, but also explain their rights to them.

Last week, the workshop’s script focused on colleges and universities. The dialogue allowed Syrian newcomers to understand that there are two types of students in post-secondary education: part-time students, and full-time students. The main idea behind this dialogue was to help them understand that studying and working are manageable if you become a part-time student.

While this is a great initiative created to help Syrian refugees feel welcome, it has also created a family.

I found that attending the workshop was more like being invited to a multi-cultural full house. Elendari is the leader of the family. She isn’t just there to make sure every Syrian newcomer is seated with a group of volunteers and a script in hand, but also ensures that they’re learning.

Following studying, activities are held, ending with a dish prepared by one of the Syrian learners, as well as the Dabake dance.

Not only has the program had several Syrian “graduates”—which helped them find jobs and support themselves—but these graduates have returned as teachers to help other newcomers.