English isn’t easy, but ESL learners grateful for the help funded by the Muskoka Novel Marathon


Twice a week, twelve people gather in a small room at the YMCA Literacy and Employment Services office in Huntsville with a singular goal: speak English as well as they speak their mother tongues.

Among those twelve are members of the two Syrian refugee families who arrived in Huntsville last year. The others hail from Chile, China, India, Russia and the Ukraine.

Jmal Al Rashed, with his wife Faeza Musaa and their five children, landed in Huntsville at the end of November, sponsored by Syrian Refugee Sponsorship (SRS) Huntsville. He spoke little English and has come a long way thanks to the help of both volunteers who come to his home to help he and Faeza learn the language of their new country – the children have mainly been learning at school – as well as the twice-weekly classes taught by certified ESL instructors Liz Angell and Marilize van der Walt.

He’s grateful for the support – “No class, no English.” And he expressed the frustration common to all second language learners: the inability at times to either understand what’s being said or to make himself understood.

He used the example of going to the grocery store where he had been given too much change after his purchase. When he realized the error and went back to the store, the cashier had left and he had to try to explain to someone new what had happened.

At the doctor’s office, his eight-year-old daughter had to come along to help him – being at school every day means her English skills have developed much more quickly. “My children know what to speak. I go to my doctor for me, my daughter, eight, come with me for translate,” he says. He also sometimes gets help with translation from Ghazwan Malem, another Syrian refugee who arrived last August, but would like to be able to manage on his own.

He’d like the classes to be available more often, and perhaps even be split in two to equally serve beginners and more advanced learners. He notes that friends in Barrie go to classes every day for five hours a day and are making much more progress than he is in the YMCA’s twice-weekly, three-hour classes. There are days when he doesn’t understand much of what’s being said, but he’s trying.

His goal is to find work so that he can support his family. In a statement all parents can relate to, he says raising five children between ages 3 and 12 is expensive. The ESL classes will be critical to his success.

SRS Huntsville volunteer Michele Schwemmer has been spending time each week with Jmal and Faeza to help them learn English. She remembers when a Vietnamese boat family moved into her Huntsville neighbourhood when she was a child, and helping them to integrate into the community. She jumped at the chance to help the Syrian family do the same.

She says that she uses a lot of body language and gesturing to help enhance understanding. “It’s more like theatre. Learning ESL, you use every method at your disposal to communicate.”

Michele sees her role more as one of supporter than teacher. “They already have the knowledge of language. All you have to do is have them connect the dots and recognize the symbols.”

Malem family

The Malem family (from left) Ghazwan, Rama, Asad and Buchra (Photo courtesy of the St. Mary’s parish)

Buchra Malem arrived in Huntsville last August with her husband Ghazwan and children Asad and Rama, sponsored by the St. Mary’s parish. She understood some English before arriving but finds that English speakers here talk very quickly. She studies a lot to improve her English skills – she’d like to be able to go alone everywhere and not worry about understanding or being understood.

She speaks with obvious pride about her children. Asad has already headed to school in London – he wants to be a pilot – and Rama, who just graduated from grade 8 at St. Mary’s, won a public speaking award just five months after the family arrived here.

Rama said that at first it was hard to talk to people and make friends. “It was kind of scary. I didn’t want to talk something wrong,” says Rama. But now? “I feel so good. Huntsville is probably the best place to live. It is quiet, a lot of good people here, a lot of helpful people. I have never heard someone talk bad things about me.” She’s unsure what she wants to be when she grows up – maybe a lawyer.

The YMCA classes – which emphasize listening and speaking skills with reading and writing to be added as students’ vocabularies grow – began April 3 and will continue as long as there is funding, staffing and need. There is clearly need for the classes – for more even than what’s being offered now – and they wouldn’t happen at all without the support of the Muskoka Novel Marathon.

“Without MNM support, these ESL classes would not be possible,” says Eileen Lee, program co-ordinator for YMCA Learning Services. “This program is wholly funded by the generosity of the writers at the Novel Marathon. As well, the funds also help to support our adult emergent literacy program and the basic computer literacy courses.”

The Muskoka Novel Marathon is a three-day, novel-writing fundraiser that draws forty writers from across Ontario – and sometimes beyond – to spend a weekend banging away at their keyboards to produce as much writing as possible. They gather pledges ahead of time, all of which are donated to the YMCA’s literacy programs.

MNM 2017 convenor Karen Wehrstein is happy that the event helps the ESL students, especially the Syrians. “When a country is so devastated that millions of its citizens have to flee their homes, risking life and limb to do it, the whole world needs to step up to take them in and help them settle into their new homes,” she says. “We are proud to be part of that.”

The 2017 Muskoka Novel Marathon kicks off tonight (July 14) at the Active Living Centre. The writers are hoping to exceed last year’s fundraising total of $36,000. Learn more about the event here and if you haven’t already sponsored a writer, you can make a general donation – every dollar of which is given to the YMCA’s programs – here.

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1 Comment

  1. Dale Peacock on

    It’s good to get an update on two of Huntsville’s newest arrivals. I constantly marvel at how well immigrants do in a short time and at how difficult it must be to leave everything you now and love to come to a new country.

    My hat is off to them and I offer my best good wishes to them all as they learn English and raise their families here.

    And kudos to the Muskoka Novel Marathon. I’ve long been a supporter and I know that my money is going to a wonderful cause. Now that cause has a human face thanks to your story Dawn.

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