Raise-a-Reader: Literacy class helps Afghan refugee and family

posted on September 14, 2018

By Susan Lazaruk, Vancouver Sun |

Fatemeh Zamani knew she was one of the lucky ones in her family when she came to Canada in 2007 from war-torn Afghanistan, via Iran, with her husband and his family.

It was a trip she realizes not only led her to a country where she can freely get an education, but likely saved her from the tragedy that befell other members of her family.

Her father was a mullah at a mosque in her hometown of Kabul — where she and her five siblings grew up — and was targeted by Taliban terrorists, said the soft-spoken mother of two from the safety of her family’s Yaletown apartment.

“The Taliban don’t like these (religious) people,” she said, as she offers a visitor some tea while she observes the Ramadan fast in June. “They don’t like people to get an education, especially girls.”

She said her father was killed two years into the conflict that has ripped apart her homeland.

“It’s not safe,” Zamani said. “It’s getting worse year by year. Really, it’s terrible.”

Her father’s death left her mother widowed and living with four of her younger siblings and unable to remain in Afghanistan.

“When my father got killed, they got scared and went to Iran and stayed there for one year,” said Zamani, 33.

But they couldn’t get jobs and Iran didn’t provide them with a better life.

“Iran was very difficult for them,” said Zamani, who kept in contact with her family by phone over the years. “If you don’t work, how are you going to eat?”

They were approached in March by smugglers, who promised them a safe trip into Turkey.

“They wanted to have a better life, especially my siblings, they wanted to study and get an education,” Zamani said.

Her mother, three brothers (30, 24 and 19 years old), and a sister, 26, paid the smugglers and followed their instructions.

“They had to walk through the mountains,” said Zamani. “The weather was very cold and they had to walk 12 hours. They didn’t have jackets. They (the smugglers) told them don’t wear too much clothes, you’re not able to walk.”

She said all but her 24-year-old brother died on the trip, on March 25, and she’s been grieving them ever since.

“What am I going to do?” she asked. “It’s really bad. Nothing gives me peace. It’s too much. It’s so difficult.”

She said she worries about her remaining brother and would like to have him join her and her family in Canada. She also worries about an older sister who remains in Afghanistan with her husband and children.

“They are not safe, either,” she said. “Everyday, they’re bombing and killing people. The kids (in Kabul), they go to school and they say goodbye to their parents. They say, ‘Forgive me if I get killed in school today.’ Everyday, it’s like this.”

She said she’s trying to get some answers from the smugglers about her family members who died but “I’m calling there and he doesn’t answer.”

The tragedy and her grief makes Zamani more than grateful to be in Canada, to be learning how to read and write. She knew a little Farsi and the similar Afghan Dari language, known as Afghan Farsi, when she arrived but had no English at all.

“I studied at S.U.C.C.E.S.S.,” she said of the Chinatown non-profit organization that helps immigrants settle in Canada. “Then I got pregnant with my son (now eight) and I stopped.” She also has a daughter age 12.

Zamani later studied English at Vancouver Community College and worked part-time at East is East, a Middle Eastern restaurant.

But she found the course load, work and taking care of two children overwhelming.

“ESL at VCC was Monday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. It was full-time, it was too much,” she said.

She was better suited to an English language course run by the Canucks Family Education Centre, which is funded in part by The Vancouver Sun Raise-a-Reader program, at Britannia Community Centre. The course offers classes twice a week, one to teach math skills, and the classes run from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

“Then I could drop my kids to school and pick them up from school,” she said.

On Wednesdays, she took another full day of classes to learn the skills to become an early childhood education assistant and she’s now qualified to work in a daycare.

“I finished that,” she said. “That was good.”

She said the classes are also valuable in providing social connections.

“There are people from all over the world,” she said. “All of us are parents like me.”

Her husband, Soltan-Mir Soltan drives a taxi and is studying English and anthropology courses at Simon Fraser University.

The Canucks Family Education Centre Family Literacy program, which has been running since 2002, is a partnership between Britannia Community Services Centre Society, the Canucks for Kids Fund, The Vancouver Sun Raise-a-Reader program and 40 program partners.

The centre’s main goal is provide literacy classes for families that works with other service providers and institutions to allow children, youth and adults to learn together.

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