A Math Program for Syrian Refugees

Consider this: you're a Syrian refugee child that arrives in the Toronto area.You and your family fled the war in Syria before you started school. You attended school sporadically while waiting in an intermediate country. Now, 4 years later you're 8 years old and starting grade 3 at a Toronto school even though you've never really consistently gone to school before.

How do you learn everything you need to know to be a grade 3 student in Canada?
That's a hard question. We're answering a  small part of it with Number Buddies: Helping Refugee Kids Succeed in Math. The program and the curriculum is developed and delivered by a researcher from the Ontario Institute of Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto. We've run the program once for 30 kids who now live in Toronto, and we're seeing success. We're hoping to deliver the program again this summer, and we want to develop the curriculum so it can be trained and delivered by others to more students in different locations. We need your help to raise money to do this! That’s our pitch: if that’s enough for you, please donate! If you want to learn more, we’ve tried to answer all your questions below.

Our program has been featured in and recognized by one of Canada's most trusted newspaper, the Globe and Mail, as it was awarded third place in the "My Gift to Canada Contest". 

Wait. Aren't schools supposed to do this?

 Consider a classroom with 21 students and one teacher where just one of the students is a refugee. When will the teacher have enough time to give individual attention to this one student, even when they have the best intentions and want to get the student up to grade level? Now consider that in some classrooms there are several refugee students! You might then ask: can parents do this at home? While the student's parents may be educated, the parents pick up English more slowly than the kids, and often are frustrated that they can't understand the material their kids bring home. Moreover, the parents themselves are trying to learn English, get jobs, raise families, all in a totally new environment – it's very hard to have time to teach. That is where we come in! Our goal is to provide these kids with the individualized attention that they need to succeed in math. We need your support to do this.  

Why is this important?

​Refugee children face a range of challenges, including interrupted schooling, trauma, and difficulties in adjusting. Additionally they need to learn to speak and write in the language of their new home country. There’s research  that shows Syrian children have experienced significant disruptions and limited access to education prior to their arrival in Canada, leading to many of them falling behind their age appropriate grade.

​The Canadian Government and school boards all across the country have implemented educational programs for Syrian children to ease their transition to Canadian society. While this includes English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction, limited support exists when it comes to math.

For Syrian children to succeed in an English speaking society, it is imperative that they learn the language. However, it is also important for them to develop their math skills.  

​Research shows that persistent difficulty in math is associated with lower rates of high school graduation and college entry. Furthermore, other research showed that high school math achievement predicts college graduation, career earning and earnings growth. These studies demonstrate how important it is to provide math support for these kids so that they don’t fall further behind; improving their math skills is strongly linked to their chances of future success.

So what are you actually doing?
We are running a math intervention program that is meant to support groups of 30 kids, where each child receives individualized attention and personalized lesson plans to fill their knowledge gaps.

At the beginning of the program, we evaluate the kids and determine their math level. Based on this assessment, we make an individualized lesson plan to cover the gaps in their knowledge and further their math abilities.

Students arrive in the classroom with their individualized binder, which has different sections dealing with specific topics like multiplication, place-value, proportions and word problems. Rather than doing one specific thing each session, they work on these topics throughout many sessions to ensure retention of the information. A team of 4 to 5 trained university volunteers, some of whom speak Arabic, are present in every session, and they answer questions and sit with the kids to explain concepts and encourage their learning.

On a weekly basis, volunteers go through each child’s worksheets to determine if they have mastered the current concepts and should move on to new problems, or if they should continue strengthening the current concepts.

OK. And who are you? What are your qualifications?

Deborah Benhamu is the founder and Director of this program. She is a Math and Statistics Graduate from the University of Toronto who will be starting her masters in Child Study and Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in September. She is originally from Venezuela and moved to Canada when she was 15 years old. She has been involved in the field of education since the beginning of her time as an undergraduate student, both tutoring in one-on-one settings and managing classrooms. Deborah works for the Math Outreach Department at the university, where she is a teacher for enrichment classes for elementary students. She is also in charge of designing curriculum for those classes. In addition, for Number Buddies, Deborah has been working under the supervision of Professor Esther Geva from OISE ; Esther’s support, input and guidance have been important contributors to the success of this program.

Deborah has presented the initial results of this program at the Canadian Psychological Association. 

Omar Khan has been working with newcomer refugee families since March 2016. He has helped families with problems at every level: from going to appointments, to helping with homework, to talking with teachers and counsellors at schools, to organizing events involving newcomers and volunteers, to fighting for the rights of refugees at the provincial level. He has seen the benefits of this program first-hand, as he knows many of the kids in the program, and he sees the value in continuing to deliver it and expand it to more kids. Omar is also a steering committee member for the Together Project , which connects Canadians and refugee newcomers to build stronger, more integrated communities.

Omar works with many families in the Thorncliffe Park are of Toronto (where the program is taking place). When he learned about Deborah's progra, he helped find participants and space to run the program in. 

Our volunteer teachers are a group of students from York University, Ryerson University, and the University of Toronto, some of whom speak Arabic. Volunteers were trained prior to the start of the program to ensure that they felt confident in their teaching skills.

You all sound great, and the program sounds important! What do you need?

 We are raising $5000. This will pay for delivering a second program for 30 kids, and developing more resources so the program can expand beyond Thorncliffe Park and be taught by trained volunteers using well-tested materials developed during these initial pilot programs.

Tell me more about the money.

This program is part of a research project at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. The program has received Ethics approaval from the University. The costs of the first program were covered by Deborah's savings. 

Now we need funds to not only run the second program, but to further develop the training materials and program materials to be able to deliver this program to more and more students. We will pay key volunteers from the pilot program to run the 2nd program and to train some of them to deliver the program independently, so we can expand.

We also have material costs: individualized binders full of worksheets, pencils, erasers, sharpeners, paper, binders, printing costs, prizes for motivating students like stickers, and snacks.

Any additional money we raise will be put towards educational programs, and we will detail how that extra money is spent in the updates we send to supporters.

Deborah and Omar will put all funds into a joint account that they will administer for the benefit of the program; no withdrawal can be made unless both agree that it is a legitimate use for the program. 

Do I get anything for donating?

Every supporter will receive updates on the program, including our results. Towards the end of the program, you will receive thank you notes from the students!

Unfortunately, we can't offer receipts for tax purposes for your support because we are not a registered charity.

Can I do something other than donate?

If you’re in the Toronto area, you can volunteer! You can get in touch with us by clicking the small envelope icon on the right, next to our picture. We will let you know of ways in which you can get involved! Beyond our program, we’ve learned that even visiting families and sharing tea with them goes a long way! If you’re in Toronto and want to help newcomer refugees more broadly, we encourage you to check out a number of volunteer opportunities that are listed on the Volunteer Toronto website .

If you are outside Toronto and want to start helping newcomers, please get in touch with your local settlement agencies.

You can also spread the word about this program by sharing it with your friends. Share the link or click the buttons below to spread the word.

What are your long-term goals?

When refugee students come to a new country, they face a lot of barriers. Teaching math to new refugees is something that can make them feel confident, and ideally make them feel included and capable of tackling not just math, but other subjects in school.

The hope is that the kids will have a better chance of succeeding in the future when we lay this foundation.

Ultimately, through the development of the materials and training volunteers, we hope this is a program that can be expanded to support immigrant kids in general who face language barriers and may not have the math background that they need to succeed in the grade they are placed in according to their age when they arrive.


First, we’d like to thank Esther Geva, without whom, this program would not have been a success. Thank you for going above and beyond any expectations of a supervisor to support this project from the beginning!

Next, we want to thank all the superstar volunteers who have made this possible, in particular Hiba Hakeem, Mikaela Palandra, Brittany Palandra, Karim Salhab, Alexia Yao, Alameen Damer, Maikel Kamel, Hani Al Hakeem, Chaline Alfred, Kevin Lee, Kamar Rahmoun, Kelvin Chukwu, and Pat Wright, who helped us find the space we needed to make this program a reality. Michael Lehan put together the video: from filming everything to editing, in a very short period of time, no less. Big thanks.

We’d also like to thank Morguard, which generously donated a space large enough to realize the pilot of our program.

Finally, we’d like to thank you for giving whatever you can to help these students.

Have more questions? Send us a message.
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Deborah Benhamu 
Toronto, ON