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Hess Street School of opportunity

Jul 05, 2011

It started as a routine photo shoot — a chance for the kids to leave Hess Street public school with a tangible token of their achievement.

But when Spectator photographer Cathie Coward saw the pictures, she was compelled to go back and find

out more about the subjects she’d  captured.

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She was at the school to shoot photos of Grade 8 graduates with their families and friends as part of Kids Unlimited, a charitable initiative by The Spectator aimed at breaking the cycle of poverty in the city’s high-needs neighbourhoods.

Since few could afford professional photos, Spec Kids planned to give each graduate a picture in honour of the milestone. As Coward reviewed the shots, she was captivated by just how much some had overcome to earn their diplomas.

Hess Street is a unique school, she says, with a large immigrant population and no fewer than 30 languages spoken. But language is the least of the challenges for many of these students.

Some, like Hawa Tahir Hassan, fled Somalia, escaping famine and war. Others, like Arezoo Afshar, left Afghanistan for a chance at an education. Fewer than 16 per cent of women are literate there, and the UN says no more than one in three Afghan girls goes to secondary school.

“These are a lot of really new immigrants,” Coward says. “If they were anywhere else, they’d never be considering entering high school. It’s pretty phenomenal.”

Coward was also struck by the degree to which the Hess Street students help each other. She’s watched as the kids take newcomers under their wings to help them adjust to a new language and culture.

“It really becomes this ‘we’re in this together’ sort of thing,” she says.

Coward returned the next day to find out more about the faces she captured, where they came from and where they’re going.

“They’re not graduating like a lot of other Grade 8s,” she says. “And the teachers have such a vested interest in these kids succeeding.”

“If I was a teacher, it’s the only place I would want to work. That place is so meaningful.”

Tamara Wilson was born in Oakville, but spent her childhood in Hamilton’s north end. She says she’d like to be a veterinarian eventually, or maybe a dental hygienist.

Despite moving out of Hess Street’s catchment area two years ago, the 14-year-old says school staff helped cover some of her busing costs from the Mountain and, later, from the family’s new home in the east end, so she could graduate with friends like Joseph Musafiri. Wilson says the pair has been close since Musafiri, a Congolese immigrant, arrived at the school in Grade 5.

“He’s funny, he’s loud,” says Wilson. “Sometimes he can be annoying, but sometimes I can be annoying too. It’s a love-hate relationship.”

Arezoo Afshar was born in Kabul, Afghanistan at the dawn of Taliban rule. In 2008, she immigrated to Canada with her parents and siblings in search of “a better life.”

Now 14, Afshar says she can’t believe she’s achieved something most girls in her home country will never have an opportunity to do — graduate from Grade 8. She says her family, including mom Kheton, deserve credit for helping her succeed.

“I couldn’t believe that I went that far,” she says.

Afshar says she’ll attend Westdale high school in the fall and hopes to become a math or science teacher.

Faysa Abdo Abdale emigrated from war-torn Mogadishu, Somalia with her mother and six siblings just over a year ago. The 13-year-old says they came to Canada to have more opportunities — particularly with education.

Did you know?

Research shows a connection between early childhood intervention and improved social and educational outcomes.

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