B.C. elementary school students get an early lesson in making a global impact.
BY JESSE MINTZ
As bombs dropped on Aleppo in late 2016, a tenacious seven-year-old Syrian girl was tweeting updates and pleas for peace from the war-ravaged city. A world away, in Surrey, British Columbia, those tweets caught the imagination of another young woman.
Isabella Layegh’s Grade 7 class at Cambridge Elementary was learning about the conflict in Syria and the impact it was having on young people. When she got home that day, she logged into her father’s Twitter account and messaged Bana al-Abed, the Syrian girl whose Tweets captivated her class with equal parts war-torn horror and youthful optimism. “I just wanted to tell her that her story is amazing…that her courage filled me with hope and that kids in my class care about her” says Isabella about reaching out.
The next morning, she jumped out of bed, ran to her laptop and saw that Bana had already Tweeted five times that day—all very personal messages, many of them graphic. Her hopes were dashed as the severity of the situation facing Bana sunk in.
Then she noticed an icon in the top right: an unread message. “I had tears in my eyes when I read her message,” says Isabella. “It didn’t sound like she was in the middle of a war. It was as if I was the one who needed help, who needed comfort.”
That was the lesson that Isabella shared with classmates in the Cambridge Elementary WE club later that day: no matter what people are going through, they can look beyond themselves and support others.
It’s a lesson educator Leslee Burwash has worked hard to foster in her classroom. She helped bring WE to the school nearly a decade ago, using the WE Schools service-learning program to pin global citizenship to the heart of her lesson plan. To help emphasize the wider impact of the program’s curriculum, she has been taking students to WE Day since the event first came to the province. Here they can share in the positive impacts of other schools from the region and gain inspiration for next year’s action plan.
When talking about her students, she is quick to point out that Isabella is special. Not all students would take it upon themselves to apply lessons from the classroom and message Bana.
Special, definitely—but not unique. “There are many students like Isabella,” the teacher says proudly. “I have many students who show initiative, who want to change things around them […] That’s what’s been developed through WE. The kids really want to help others, to do their part as citizens of the earth.”
For Isabella, who’s helped with school-wide food drives and fundraised to tackle poverty in the local community, it was the lessons she picked up at home that led her to WE.
Students at Cambridge have to write an essay to join the WE club. Isabella remembers some students were put off by the challenge—not her, though.
She wrote about lessons passed down from her father. An immigrant from Iran, he lived through the revolution, and the war with Iraq, which followed shortly after. He came to Canada when he was Isabella’s age, and while it’s still a sensitive subject for her family, she’s pieced together the kind of adversities he faced from snippets of overheard stories.
Years later in Canada, her father became a librarian in downtown Vancouver. On occasion, Isabella would accompany him on drives through the city and catch glimpses of the poverty in East Hastings. “I remember the first time we were driving down the street, and I asked my parents what was going on there,” she recalls, her usual cheer dissipating as shares the memory. “Knowing [my dad] went through the hardships that I’ve seen people on the streets go through, that had an impact on me.”
And inspired her writing.
The essay she penned got her into the WE club. Together with 14 other budding change-makers, she’s helped host theme days on multiculturalism to tackle prejudice and racism, run food drives, put on fundraisers for WE’s international development projects, and participated in Orange Shirt Day to honour Indigenous people impacted by residential schools.
The positive effect of these actions on students like Isabella is clear. “When I was younger, I always said, ‘I want to help others,’” she says proudly. “WE has opened me to up so many opportunities.”