Maya Mihajlovic and her husband came to Canada after civil war broke out in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Mihajlovic has a background in science and teaching, and has two children who went to Burnaby's Maywood Community School. She struggled to adjust to her new life in Canada and now facilitates programs to help other immigrants and refugees with school-aged children.
Q: What kind of work do you do at Maywood Community School?
A: I facilitate the Parenting for Immigrants program run in partnership with Burnaby Family Life and the Burnaby School District, and I also facilitate the Bridges Preschool Program, which is also run cooperatively by different agencies like the City of Burnaby, the Burnaby School District, etc.
Q: Where are you from originally?
A: I was born in Yugoslavia. It was a beautiful country in Europe that had provinces, the same as Canada. My father was from a province called Croatia, and my mother from one called Serbia. They married and lived in the capital, Belgrade, which is in Serbia. That is where me and my sister were born and raised. After the civil war, the country's provinces separated, and they become new countries.
Belgrade, where I lived, is in Serbia, so now I say that I am from Serbia.
Q: Why did you come to Canada?
A: When the civil war started in Yugoslavia, neither me nor my husband wanted to take sides. We naively believed that it was going to be just a few months of tension and then everything would settle down. My husband is a computer engineer and wanted to come and work in Canada for a year. I was just finishing my PhD at the University of Belgrade, and I decided to take a sabbatical for that year and accompany him and complete my degree at UBC. I was accepted to do volunteer work in the research lab on their project and then include the research in my PhD. I was excited about that possibility, but because we had no job or sponsor in Canada, the only way for us to come was to apply for landed immigrant status, which we did and got accepted.
Q: What was the experience like, adjusting to a new country?
A: I must tell you honestly that, for me, it was terrible. When you are a landed immigrant you do not get any support from any government or non-government agency during your first year. You are expected to bring enough money to support yourself until you get a job; you are expected to independently orient yourself into the community and make connections. ... I had to give up on my research because it was a volunteer position and I could not afford to pay child care. We were struggling a lot; no family, no close friends, no community support. Therefore I stayed home, lonely, isolated, sad, scared and feeling totally lost. ... After a while, I met some of the neighbours, and they helped me with some information. They become our friends and are like family now.
Q: I understand your children used to attend Maywood. How did that experience help you adjust?
A: My daughter registered for kindergarten to a school that, at that time, was not even built. Our first principal-parents orientation meeting was held at Bonsor Recreation Complex, and the principal showed us the spot where Maywood was going to be built in the fall. I believe that was a turning point for my life in Canada. My daughter's kindergarten teacher came to visit us in our apartment to introduce herself, and I viewed that as the kindest gesture, ever!
From the first day my child went to Maywood, I finally had a place we belonged. I met other parents and some of them are among my closest friends even now. I learned a lot from them. I stopped crying every day. I decided that, if there was a chance, I would one day help other new immigrants adjust more easily.
Q: What are the most common things immigrants and refugees with school-aged children struggle with in Canada?
A: Just imagine the choice between private and public school. Private schools are very expensive, and for most new immigrants struggling just to put food on the table, the whole family would need to starve in order for a child to go to private school. But at the same time - maybe that family is coming from country where the public school system is a disaster and any real education could only be gotten in private school. That family is then expected to make a horribly difficult choice, and they have no real information, so they turn to the Fraser Institute rankings.
Also, the structure and logistics of the school system in Canada is very different than in other countries. Many of my clients never knew that kindergarten starts at age five and only goes for one year, they do not know that preschool is not free, they never heard of split classes or community schools, they believe that "play" is not serious learning and that core academics should be taught and well practised in Grade 1.
Discipline is another thing - many countries allow physical disciplining, the children have uniforms and do not look teachers in the eyes, the teachers do not sit on the floor nor come to school in jeans.
Parents of older children also put lots of peer pressure on their kids, with big differences in values and customs - parents struggle to keep theirs while their kids already acquire Canadian values and insist on them because they want to belong here. Q: What's the best advice you have for families new to Canada, adjusting to a different kind of school system?
A: Get involved with your school as soon as your child registers. If you are lucky and it is a community school, go visit the community room and introduce yourself. I am sure that you will see smiling and friendly faces. If your school is not a community school, ask about agencies in the community that offer programs and services for families, and visit them. Ask the school staff about volunteering opportunities.
Then volunteer at school events, in your child's classroom, wherever they involve parents. Approach parents of your children's classmates. Most of them are very friendly and ready to welcome you into their community. Be positive about school, teachers and your children's new friends.
You are modelling for your children, they are watching for clues as to how they should feel. And above all, keep your mind open to new concepts because what is new may be scary in the beginning but will usually make sense in time. Be brave; there is a saying that if you want to see a rainbow you need to endure some rain beforehand.
And by all means, be proud of yourself, because it takes lots of courage to do what we all did - move our families and raise our children in a completely new country and start all over from the beginning.