By Suzanne Charest
When Susan Ragheb participated in the OCISO all staff meeting on March 5th of this year and her team enacted a short play about the Multicultural Liaison Officer (MLO) program of the future, little did she know that within less than two weeks in many ways the future would arrive.
The MLO team enacted a future where technology would be the key to everything. For Susan, who narrated the play, her work as a MLO in the new reality of COVID 19 wouldn’t be possible without technology.
Susan studied architecture are Carleton University, taught language, art and history at a private school in Kuwait, then returned to Ottawa. She was ready for a career change and joined OCISO as a MLO in 2018. She covers schools where many of the newcomers speak Arabic — Carson Grove and Henry Munro elementary schools in the East end of Ottawa, along with Ridgemont High School in the South end.
“Since COVID 19, there’s definitely been a shift from human face to face interaction,” explains Susan. “The biggest change is that I now do everything over the phone. Face to face meetings have transformed to video calls.”
It’s not just the way services are delivered that has changed, it’s some of the actual work. “We have shifted to beyond just school-related matters, to helping with things such as applications for government assistance.” adds Susan.
Normally she is focused on taking care of registration for schools, course selections, participating in meetings with families and students, sitting in parent/teacher interviews and dealing with matters where there are student needs, essentially acting as an interpreter and explaining everything to the newcomer student’s family. She would often go with families to visit a new school if a transfer was arranged.
“In normal times if a situation arises where a family needs help with a citizenship application, legal matters, housing, financial assistance, or the need for food banks, on a case by case basis, we would refer them to our settlement services for more extensive assistance in these areas,” explains Susan.
With the volume rising greatly in settlement services, due to COVID-19, the MLOs are providing support to their colleagues. “Often when we are talking to families about school matters, they bring up other issues,” says Susan. She has seen about 50 per cent more requests for this type of assistance.
That’s where technology comes in. As a MLO, a lot of her clients don’t know how to use computers or may not have a computer at home. They only have cell phones. The Ottawa Carleton District School Board and the Ottawa Catholic School Board have provided laptops to families who needed them temporarily.
Teachers are using Google Classrooms and video calls on Google Meet. Susan is providing some technology support to the families and interpreting the students’ assignments. “Some students recently arrived in Canada so don’t speak or understand a lot of English,” explains Susan.
She has participated in online classes with students where the teacher puts the assignment up, and at the same time she participates in private online chats with some of the students, giving them the instructions in Arabic and answering their questions. “It’s a little tricky, but we’ve found ways to work around it.” exclaims Susan, who is steadfast in her determination to find ways to confront challenges.
Susan mostly uses WhatsApp video chat to communicate with both parents and students in addition to good old-fashioned phone calls. “I’ve seen first hand the huge impact of having the video calls on letting the families know they are not alone.”
What she’s learned the most since the COVID 19 started is to appreciate the human connection and truly understand the impact of having the connection. “Whatever challenges arise, we can overcome the obstacles and find a way to serve the clients,” remarks Susan.
The language barrier is still there for many of the newcomer families along with a feeling of isolation. Susan’s reassurance helps to dispel the panic and fear experienced by many of her clients. She refers them CHIN radio 97.9, where they can access the news in Arabic and other languages. “There is a lot of misinformation out there, that’s why we are constantly updating our clients with trustworthy news and to correct or dispel myths that are circulating.”
Her calm demeanour is one of her greatest strengths. What started as the task of helping a family with a tricky situation with their hydro bill ended with her explaining if and when they would ever need to self-isolate because of COVID 19. The family felt at ease as she reassured them.
Though much of the work of MLOs like Susan has embraced technology as the new way of delivering services, one thing has not changed –being there for newcomer families.
Created in 1991, OCISO’s the Multicultural Liaison Officer Program (MLO) addresses the settlement needs of immigrant and refugee families in Ottawa schools. The goal of the MLO program is to help ensure the successful integration of newcomer children and their families in Ottawa schools.
The program takes a three-pronged approach that involves the student, the family and the wider school community. OCISO runs this program in partnership with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and the Ottawa Catholic School Board.