Mariia has lived in Saint John for about 18 months. She and her family fled Kiev, Ukraine last year after the Russian invasion brought war to their country. They left her older brother behind because he may be called to join the war effort.
Today, Mariia is 14, a confident English speaker who also speaks some French and is eager for Grade 9 to begin. But a year ago, she was a mess.
“For the first three months, I don’t understand my teachers,” said Mariia. “I tried to find friends.”
She smiles at the memory.
“Now I have lots of friends,” she said.
In August, she was one of 16 young teens taking advantage of English Language Day Camp, an initiative of Pennies & Sparrows Ministry run out of Stone Church in Saint John’s uptown. This is the second year for the venture. Mariia was at last year’s camp and was happy to return.
“I love this camp,” she said. “The walking, the good food. The snacks are so good. There are lots of people trying to understand. It’s important to try.”
With an overwhelming response in 2022, this year, the Rev. Terence Chandra planned two camps, one for younger children aged 5-12, and this one for older kids aged 12-16. During the two weeks, children originally from Ukraine, China, El Salvador, Brazil, Venezuela, Syria, Sudan and Nigeria attended.
The camps had volunteers from Stone, some from the adult English language classes they hold, and also from the YMCA who count Ukraine, Chile and Syria as their countries of origin.
The kids enjoyed a scavenger hunt along Harbour Passage, visited the public library, played sports, and enjoyed the splash pad at Rainbow Park. The older group had a day devoted to employment, learning about resumés, conducting mock interviews and getting tips on how to find a part-time job.
But on the day the New Brunswick Anglican visited, the kids were learning to sew. At the United Colours of Fashion Studio on Union Street, the kids, volunteers and a woman named Elena were busy with fabric, thread, needles and lots of hands-on instruction.
Elena is Russian and for many years taught computer science, math and physics. Her career took her to UNESCO schools, and she eventually met her future husband, who is from Saint John. Now in Canada nine years, she teaches women to sew, or in this case, children.
“I so enjoy it,” she said. “I feel like the kids are making a new life, working together. I think they feel comfortable in Canada.”
She’s found a few Ukrainians who won’t speak to her, but she understands why.
“I feel sorry for Ukraine now. I have so many friends from Ukraine. It was a big shock.
“I like to help. This is a first step today to a happy life for them,” she said as she gestured to the children busily sewing.
Clare Andrews is running this year’s camps. She’s a new hire at Pennies & Sparrows who runs their language programs.
“I’m an ESL teacher, so this is a natural role for me to take on,” she said. “Each day we have a theme and the kids learn words around that theme.”
Miriam Westin, another employee of Pennies & Sparrows, was on hand for the camps. She works with language classes and drop-in events. During our visit, she was helping kids with threading needles and other challenges of sewing.
“I’m really enjoying working with the children,” said Miriam. “There’s a wide variety of language levels and activities they can engage in.
“When we go on walks, it’s a good chance to point things out. They have lots of questions.”
“There’s still a need here,” said Terence of why he opted for a second summer of language camps. “We still have a lot of newcomers in Saint John.”
Last summer, 17 of the 20 camp kids were from Ukraine. This summer, there’s a greater variety, which forces kids to speak English because it’s the only language they all have in common.
“There’s obvious value in teaching English to kids. You can’t integrate if you can’t speak the language,” he said.
This summer his schedule did not allow him to be on-site for the camps, something he missed. But he was happy to put the project into Clare’s hands, and he’s pleased with the outcome.
“She and her team did a fantastic job,” he said.
He’s a bit surprised that no other agency in Saint John has offered language camps to child newcomers.
“There was definitely a gap, and we wanted to fill it.”
Ideally, Terence would love to see other parishes across the diocese offer something similar, and he’s open to sharing his experiences of setting them up.
In the greater picture, Terence answers the question of why they held these camps the same way he did last summer: “Jesus said welcome the stranger. I stand by that. As we welcome these kids into our space, we welcome Jesus into our space.”
1. Elena, originally from Russia, was the sewing mentor to children attending English Language Camp in Saint John in August.
2. Mariia, in purple, attended the camp for the second year in a row.
3. After many attempts, Leo, originally from China, gets his needle threaded.