Building the Village to Raise the Child

The RISE awards recognize people focused on lifting up their communities

Throughout her career, Salam Seifeddine has helped children of all ages embrace education and discover a love of learning. Over the past 25 years, she’s worked in classrooms around the world, from teaching kindergarten in Lebanon to her current role supporting junior high students at John D. Bracco School in northeast Edmonton. As each year passes and each class moves on, she’s come to understand and appreciate the importance of teamwork in ensuring each student’s success.

“A classroom is a small community, really. Everyone is important, and everyone has a role to play,” she says. “When we’re talking about our newcomers’ kids education, there should of course be a collaboration between teachers and students, but also with administrators, families and parents.”

As part of her role as an educational assistant with John D. Bracco’s English Language Learners (ELL) Transition Program, Seifeddine is part of a team that works to help children whose first language is not English prepare to enter regular classroom studies.

“I think it’s important we involve their parents, because they are the ones who know their kids best. We need to hear their voices in this process,” she says. “No parent should be left in the dark. They should not feel lost when it comes to their kids’ education.”

Seifeddine, who is bilingual in English and Arabic, works within the program to offer additional support to Arabic-speaking parents and families. She’s well-acquainted with the challenges and opportunities these families encounter every day, and strives to make their lives easier in whatever way she can.

“In Canada, newcomer parents have a different role when it comes to their kids’ education than they did back home. At home, they help. They teach their kids, help with homework. Here, sometimes the kids are the ones who are helping the parents with translating at appointments or with forms,” she says. “It’s not easy parenting in two cultures. If we facilitate the school system for them, we are helping and doing our part.”

With class sizes in the program often topping 30 students or more, Seifeddine and the teachers she works with often have their hands full. The students each bring their own unique experiences and perspectives to the classroom — some have had no formal education, while others have experienced delays or gaps in theirs. Many have experienced trauma. No matter their experiences, the ELL team works to meet kids where they are, offering personalized support and engagement activities.

“The needs we see are wide and diverse. You’re working with sometimes four different levels of English — and everyone is learning the strategies and concepts at their own level and in their own way,” she says. “So the more bodies in the classroom, the more adults we have there, the better.”

Fortunately, volunteers from organizations including the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers (EMCN) bolster support in the ELL classroom through other language and educational supports. For more than 40 years, EMCN has supported such programs throughout the Edmonton region, helping newcomer and immigrant families adjust to and fully participate in Canadian society. Whether through language classes, employment resources or mental-health supports, EMCN strives to make Edmonton a more welcoming and inclusive place for individuals and families of all backgrounds to call home.

Since 2003, EMCN has honoured individuals and organizations in Edmonton who support their mandate through the annual RISE Awards. Each year, the awards recognize recipients in six categories who are working to help immigrants and newcomers build their lives in Edmonton. In 2019, Seifeddine was recognized with a Community Leadership Award for her passion and commitment to inclusive education for newcomer families.

“My heart and soul goes into helping newcomers. I have great faith in them — in their strength, in their talents, in their resilience,” she says. “When we’re working with them, we get to help them feel safe and loved, helping them to make friends and get to know their communities. We’re able to see past the broken English to see that these kids are going to be our heroes.”

Although the RISE Awards took a hiatus in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, they awarded recipients in October 2021. This year, Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) was proud to sponsor the Community Leadership Award, recognizing individuals like Seifeddine for their work in making Edmonton a more welcoming and inclusive community.

“We are moved by the incredible work of so many Edmontonians like Salam,” says Nneka Otogbolu, ECF’s director of communications and equity strategy. “The Community Leadership Award is a way for us to help recognize these champions who are strengthening our community every day.”

As she prepared to head into another school year at John D. Bracco, Seifeddine felt confident about what lay ahead. Although she already touched the lives of hundreds of students and families in Edmonton, she doesn’t plan to slow down anytime soon.

“This has become a way of life for me — it’s not simply a job I go to. These kids have changed my life — I hope I’ve changed theirs,” she says. “Even if it’s only a little difference, I’ll be happy if I had an impact.”

This story comes from the Winter 2021 edition of Legacy in Action. Browse the full magazine here.