At Global Gathering Place, we pride ourselves on providing heartfelt, personalized supports to refugees and immigrants regardless of the barriers or vulnerabilities they face. Community partnerships are crucial to these efforts, and one key partnership is with Vision Loss Rehabilitation Saskatchewan (VLRSK). VLRSK helps people who are blind or partially sighted participate in the world. VLRSK teaches clients to travel independently, take care of their household, pursue education, and gain skills needed for the workforce. For over five years, VLRSK and GGP have partnered to support newcomers with vision loss in achieving their settlement goals.
Khadija is one of several Syrian refugees who arrived to Saskatchewan in 2015. Khadija is very intelligent, strong in math, and has total vision loss. She never had the opportunity to develop literacy in her native language Arabic, nor the English alphabet. To enrol in English classes, newcomers must have their language levels assessed, and Khadija was unable to complete the typical assessment.
For one full year, Khadija rarely left her Saskatoon apartment. She wanted to gain literacy skills and had hopes of engaging in the community, and Muna Saeed, GGP’s Client Services Coordinator, wanted to help Khadija reach those goals. An important step would be for Khadija to join a GGP English class.
“We needed to support her in the class,” said Muna. “In Foundations and Literacy classes, students depend on pictures. With vision loss Khadija needed someone to interpret, to tell her what’s going on all the time. For her to be in the class, she needed supports.”
Muna contacted Vision Loss Rehabilitation Saskatchewan, the only organization in the province that exclusively offers services for vision loss. At VLRSK, Muna and Khadija met Julie Kehrig. “We realized we could help each other,” Julie said. “Our team of experts could help GGP understand how to accommodate a student with vision loss. And GGP was able to provide interpretation services, so we could teach how to do day-to-day tasks in Canada. We would have never been able to teach these things without GGP. So that’s how it started.”
Funding, tools, and dedicated staff make language learning possible
VLRSK secured funds to provide assistive technologies to Khadija, including an iPad paired with a keyboard. The Assistive Technology Specialist at VLRSK taught Khadija to use the device—a form of literacy in this day and age. With apps and tools, people with vision loss can do things that would have been impossible 20 years ago. Apps not only provide accessible maps, for example, but can also tell you what color shirt you’re putting on in the morning so it will match your pants.
The secured funds also paid for another essential resource—a support person who could assist Khadija with her learning. Khadija began working closely with Abeer Younis, an Arabic and English speaker with teaching experience. Abeer translated teacher resources to make them accessible for Khadija and helped her learn to use devices.
“Abeer supported Khadija as much as she could,” Muna said. “She helped with language learning as well as life outside the classroom, everything from booking an appointment with a doctor, taking the bus, and more.”
GGP teachers Larraine and Bob also played an important role in Khadija’s learning; they are always willing to go the extra mile to ensure she continued her language progress. In addition, GGP and VLRSK communicated regularly to help Khadija build on the skills she was learning at each organization, like practicing the English alphabet on her keyboard.
Khadija also learned to type in braille, and can write and read sentences using braille. Braille offers a new way of language understanding, helping clients with vision loss understand things like grammar rules and how letters fit together on a page.
Beyond the classroom: building skills for life
In addition to language learning, VLRSK taught Khadija various other skills to support her freedom and confidence. Cane training, technically called Orientation and Mobility (O&M) training, enables independent travel. Julie explains, “Having O&M training could mean taking the bus on your own to get downtown to GGP. It can be navigating a building, so you don’t have to ask someone to take you to the washroom or another classroom.”
To provide O&M training to newcomers with limited English skills like Khadija, GGP’s interpretation services have been essential. Julie says, “It’s important that nothing gets lost in translation. You’re teaching someone how to cross the street safely with traffic. You have to make sure they understand. And we couldn’t have done that without language supports from GGP.”
These language supports also extended to VLRSK’s independent living skills training, which spans personal care, like cutting fingernails, to preparing food and using appliances.
Through skill building and language learning, Khadija has transformed into “a different person,” Muna says. “Before I never saw Khadija alone, she was always accompanied by her mom or someone else. She couldn’t go to an appointment without her mom. Now I see Khadija very comfortable and confident on her own, using her cane, taking the bus, depending on herself and using the bus.”
Scaling services for community impact
Since the partnership began to support Khadija, more and more refugee clients have come to VLRSK for assistance. Julie says, “GGP was a great resource for us. They were able to provide the support we needed or tell us where to go. After Khadija, when more refugee clients came to us it got easier and easier because we’d done it before. So we knew what steps to put in place and who to call for which supports. So our service definitely got better thanks to GGP.”
Beyond creating real results for newcomers through trainings and language learning, this partnership imparts something else even more valuable: a sense of possibility.
Julie says, “Refugee clients need someone to explain the possibilities. In many places, the only future for someone with vision loss is basically to do very menial work. I explain that in Canada people with vision loss can have jobs, take the bus, get married, have families. Yes, many people have entry level jobs but others with vision loss are lawyers, professors, and accountants. These options can really surprise them because this wasn’t possible in their home country. We can say that in Saskatoon, there are opportunities for people where they didn’t exist before.“