British Columbia

Future of summer camp for refugee children uncertain as student founders graduate

The future is uncertain for a popular Vancouver summer camp that helps newly arrived refugee children because the founders — two university students who run it in their spare time — graduate next year.

B.C. Newcomer Camp has been running for three years and each camp is already at capacity

The camp gives the kids a chance to learn games that will help them make friends once school starts and to play outside during the summer, says Duncan Bernardo. (BC Newcomer Camp)

The future is uncertain for a popular Vancouver summer camp that helps newly arrived refugee children because the founders — two university students running it in their spare time — graduate next year.

Duncan Bernardo, who's studying international economics at the University of British Columbia, launched the summer camp with Dakota Koch in 2016. It started with just one camp but has now expanded to two, both of which are fully booked. 

"The whole goal is to give [the children] the confidence and skills they need so that when they start attending schools in Canada they can more easily make friends and do better in class," Bernardo said. 

The B.C. Newcomer Camp is a mixture of English lessons in the morning — with certified instructors who speak a wide range of languages, from Spanish to Kurdish — and outdoors activities and sports in the afternoon. 

Duncan Bernardo, centre, is one of the founders of the summer camp. (BC Newcomer Camp)

Transcending language barriers

The games they learn to play — like the tag game "grounders" or "cops-and-robbers" — are things that show up on many school playgrounds. 

Learning how to play before classes launch helps ease the social transition into school — even across language barriers, Bernardo said. 

He knows first-hand what it's like to be immersed in a foreign country without speaking the language, having moved to Spain as a child. 

"I was able to make friends out at recess because I knew how to play soccer," he told CBC's On The Coast.

"So, even though I couldn't talk to other kids I could kick the ball around."

That was one of the original inspirations behind the summer camps.  

Mornings at the camp are dedicated to English lessons, before playtime outside. (BC Newcomer Camp)

'The most fun they've ever had'

Despite the long, unpaid hours required to run the camp, Bernardo says it's worth it. 

"A lot of [the children] have come from really, really unfortunate kind of pasts — coming from war-torn countries, having to flee their homes, and a lot of them haven't really had a chance to really have a carefree childhood," he said. 

"A lot of them say it's the most fun they've ever had in their life." 

It also eases some of the childcare burden on their parents, with camp providing everything from bus passes to lunches. 

Bernardo knows first-hand how sports can help children transcend language barriers to make friends: he moved to Spain as a child and played soccer with his classmates. (BC Newcomer Camp)

Three years in, the founders aren't sure what will happen next year after they graduate and face the possibility of leaving the region.  

"Basically, we found it impossible to find someone who has the abilities and skills to run a charity and is able to commit 20 to 30 hours a week with no monetary compensation," Bernardo said.

"Right now we're trying to fundraise $30,000 by the end of the summer so we can hire an executive director."  

Extra funding would go to expanding the project and opening a third camp in the Tri-Cities area. 

With files from On The Coast