Kung fu, rope climbing — not what you'd expect to hear in a description of a counselling program. But settlement workers in Burnaby say these activities are helping refugee teenagers deal with trauma.

The program is called "Body Worlds and the Brain," and has been running for five years in Burnaby.

Instead of traditional counselling — which is a new concept for many refugee families — settlement worker Haval Ahmad described the weekly afterschool program as 'backdoor counselling.' 

Kung Fu

A group of boys practices kung fu during the Body Worlds and Brain afterschool program in Burnaby. (CBC News)

"We're approaching trauma with play, with outdoor activities, with group sessions, with a safe circle which includes other students that share the same background — who came from war torn zones, from conflict zones, [it] makes it more comfortable for students to share their experiences, and try or attempt something they've never tried before," said Ahmad.

The federally funded program — currently only available in Burnaby — was designed by registered psychologist Sarina Kot, who believes confidence building activities are more effective with refugee teenagers, than traditional therapy.

"I think a lot of the students have gained confidence and also they have gained more self awareness and more self acceptance," said Kot.

Some of the issues refugee teens are reluctant to share include loss and identity. 

"Sometimes it would be losing a parent to death, sometimes it would be losing part of their extended family through lack of contact, so [these] losses would affect their challenges [in adapting to a new life in Canada]," said Kot.

'Impact is huge'

Ahmad said many of the participants feel like others may not understand what they've gone through before arriving in Canada, so a program specifically aimed at refugee teenagers can be life changing. 

"The impact is huge," he said.

Haval Ahmad

Settlement worker Haval Ahmad says the counselling program aimed at refugee teens has a lasting impact. (CBC News)

"Some kids will arrive to the program with some experiences that an average kid born in a western world can't even imagine.  Bombing, witnessing killing, running, having an unstable life for years, probably being born and raised in a refugee camp and not knowing anything better than that."

Each week in the 10-week program, the teens try different activities. One week it's photo books sharing memories of the past, another week it could be dance lessons or kung fu.


Zahra Samimi (left) and Lana Khalil (right) are past participants in an after-school program aimed at helping refugee teenagers deal with trauma. (CBC News)

Haval said in addition to connecting with others who share a similar story, these type of activities help the teenagers deal with fear and learn problem-solving skills.  

Zahra Samimi came from Afghanistan in 2013 as a refugee, and she said the atmosphere in the after-school program helped put her at ease.

"Because we were newcomers, and we were coming from different countries, and our English was the same — that's why I felt so comfortable to share my story. [I felt] like no one will judge me," said Samimi.

Fatuma Hassan is a 16 year old from Somalia who resisted the program at first and then joined when some friends encouraged her.

16-year-old Iraqi refugee Lana Khalil said the program helped her find her voice.

"I was really shy and really quiet. I didn't talk for the first year but then after, I started talking [and] I felt a difference from being shy, to being the girl who talks a lot," she said.

The 24 spots they have each year fill up fast and with the influx of refugees over the last few months, there's currently a wait list. 

To hear the full story, click the audio labelled: After-school program helps teen refugees deal with trauma