-Written by Judy Piercey
In the basement of the intercultural Family and Child Centre, two dozen women surrounded by pre-school children, crowd around tables arranged in a long rectangle. They are eager to share their experiences with each other and also with the leader of the class, Ann Nicolai, project coordinator with the REACH Immigrant and Refugee Initiative (RIRI). Ann, now a grandmother, draws on her own experience growing up with immigrant parents and as a mother herself, to lead a discussion called "Communicating with Children."
As cultural navigator Dinke Gamtessa facilitates and translates, the Oromo and Eritrean women bombard the class with questions and comments. Communicating with their children is a big challenge for them as newcomers to life in Edmonton.
School is a hot topic. The children, who have adapted to English very quickly, often speak the new language better than their parents. They bring home papers and hand them to their mothers with a command: "sign here."
"What am I signing?" asks mom. The women chuckle as they reminisce about the times their children have tricked them into agreeing to something they know perfectly well their mother would never allow.
"Overnight school trips!" exclaims one mom as the others shake their heads in empathy.
Communication between parents, their children and teachers is a topic that resonates with all of the cultural navigators.
Joseph Luri, a mentor with the South Sudanese community, can list example after example of communication conflicts that have created barriers in families.
"Just last weekend, I had a father complain to me that his son was looking him in the eye. Back home it's a sign of disrespect to look an elder in the eye. But at school, the teachers think the child is hiding something if they look down. 'Look me in the eye when I'm talking to you,' says the teacher. But at home, the father says 'if you look me in the eye like that I will have to severely punish you.'"
"If a child explains that this is the way it is at school, the father says, 'Well that's not the way it is at home.'"
He admits it's often confusing for the child. "This confusion sometimes leads to a lack of understanding of the parents. The child may try to correct a parents' pronunciation, which again the parent considers disrespectful," Joseph says, adding that tensions around communication are never ending.
He cites the example of the demand for material goods, as children see the kind of expensive shoes, bags and clothing being worn by their peers. They question their parents' choices of how to spend money, especially when the parents are helping extended family back home with monthly financial support.
However, there are also success stories about families who overcame the difficulties of communicating across the lines between generations.
One young man, speaking at a gathering facilitated by RIRI community coordinator Ryan Valley, credits his parents' ability to communicate with keeping him on track.
"When I was in high school, like Grade 12, I was going out with friends a lot and my grades were going down. But what really helped me is my parents always asking how was school and being interested. It helped a lot," he tells the group.
He adds that the lessons he learned from his parents' open communication set an example for him with his friends, giving him the tools to stay out of trouble.
"When people would ask me to try a new thing I always say no, no I'm okay. Because I know some of them start smoking weed and then partying and they always need more. I had good friends who wanted to succeed too, we always would talk to each other about what we wanted to do and talk about how we wanted to succeed and supported each other."
Azkaa Rahman, a cultural navigator with the Muslim community, says that communication is an ongoing struggle even if the family is English speaking. "Families have to be trained in communication. Husbands and wives have to be mentored and coached on how to communicate with each other."
As an example to stress the importance of communication, she tells of a workshop she organized on sexual health. Azkaa hired a psychologist from Yellowknife as a speaker to lead a workshop on this extremely sensitive, and often considered taboo, topic.
"We invited couples to begin a conversation on sexual health. People were interested in coming out to such a gathering. Individuals were excited about all the potential discussions on healthy sexuality. To our surprise, the psychologist spent the entire evening focusing just on communication. That was it."
She reflects for a moment on the generations of Muslims who have lived in Canada. "The experiences of my grandparents and parents, while likened to the larger human experience, were still vastly different. The micro and macro environments in which they were raised were both subtly and broadly distinct. How my parents taught me, is not the way I can teach my children; there's value to the art of translation, both literal and metaphoric. How can we instil empathy, listening and graceful exchange in a relevant and compelling manner? Perhaps these are the ongoing questions of the evolving human condition."