News / Toronto

Dictionary drive aims to help Syrian refugees picture new life in Toronto

Inspired by his work with Kosovar refugees and children from Chernobyl, Michael Ballard is collecting the books for newcomers.

Michael Ballard is collecting picture dictionaries for Syrian refugees in Toronto, in the hopes that it will quickly improve their comprehension of English and ease their integration into the community.

Torstar news Service

Michael Ballard is collecting picture dictionaries for Syrian refugees in Toronto, in the hopes that it will quickly improve their comprehension of English and ease their integration into the community.

For Michael Ballard, a picture dictionary can be worth a thousand words of welcome.

Ballard has seen the books used as road maps for Canada by Kosovar refugees, and by children escaping Chernobyl radiation. Now, the 62-year-old Torontonian is collecting Arabic-English versions for Syrian refugees and their Toronto sponsor families.

“It’s a very powerful way to get across to everyone what’s going on,” he said.

With drawings depicting everyday scenes, the books can help newcomers navigate supermarket aisles, classrooms, and casual greetings.

When the Trenton military base temporarily hosted hundreds of incoming Kosovar refugees in 1999, Ballard, who lived nearby, volunteered with the resettlement effort.

Inspired by an earlier experience hosting summer trips for Ukrainian children affected by the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in the early 1990s, he set about arming the newcomers with picture dictionaries to quickly bolster their English skills.

Ballard noticed the benefits on the military base immediately.

“The first, second day, when the books started landing, I got dozens of ‘Hello! Hello!’ because they all practised,” he said. “It was gorgeous.”

A few days later, more and more people started commenting on the weather.

These small starts with English helped lead to lasting friendships across language and cultural boundaries, he said.

Recently, a Facebook message arrived from one of the Chernobyl children he had hosted two decades ago, “in English that’s just as good as it gets” — reaching out just to say hello.

Professional translators and technology are vital aids for refugees, he conceded. But the books in the universal language of pictures are available when other help isn’t — whether it’s 3 a.m., or a smartphone isn’t in the budget, or the Wi-Fi’s out of range.

“This is old-school hard copy. It works with 3-year-olds and 83-year-olds,” he said.

Two picture dictionaries, one for kids and one for adults, have proven their usefulness to newcomers in the past.

Torstar News Service

Two picture dictionaries, one for kids and one for adults, have proven their usefulness to newcomers in the past.

Supporters of the project can purchase copies online through Indigo and have them delivered to Ballard’s local Chapters store in Bayview Village, where he will collect them to pass on through Lifeline Syria and two private sponsor groups.

Based on the groups’ needs, he aims to collect 255 copies of the Oxford Picture Dictionary and 100 copies of the Milet Mini Picture Dictionary for children.

Thanks to his suggestion, the Toronto Public Library ordered 18 more copies of the Oxford book, quadrupling its existing stock, to circulate across the system.

“The grandmas, they might not learn more than a couple hundred words ... but if we can help them learn 200 words, they’ll feel safer, more connected to us.”

The books can help their sponsors be good hosts, too.

“If I can get 50 words about food into my brain, and you can get 50 words about food into your brain, then suddenly we can at least talk about basics for food. That you don’t want porridge for three days in a row. You want toast.”

Ballard hopes families will treasure the books, keeping them as resources to use as homework helpers at the kitchen table or to arm themselves for visits with doctors, lawyers, and potential new bosses.

He has heard from Kosovar refugees that they treasured their copy as something to hold on to, which can be increasingly meaningful for people who have left everything behind, he added.

“To me it’s partly about giving them a sense of dignity and a resource,” he said.

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