Tragedy inspires mental health action for Calgary's young immigrant communities

In the Genesis Centre Community Gym hundreds of youth from across the city, and nearby communities are in a drumming circle together — chanting about speaking out and rising up.

United Voices Summit trains youth to become mental health champions

Students listen as Mayor Naheed Nenshi speaks during the United Voices Summit on mental health. (Helen Pike/CBC)

In the Genesis Centre Community Gym hundreds of youth from across the city, and nearby communities are in a drumming circle together — chanting about speaking out and rising up.

This is the first time a mental health event like this is focusing on immigrant and newcomer youth in the city but organisers with Immigrant Services Calgary hope to host more.

Hyder Hassan said Immigrant Services Calgary moved to organise the summit after a newcomer girl died by suicide.

"We wanted to train them on resilience and how to face obstacles and find a way forward," said Hassan. "Youth, they face a higher level of discrimination sometimes, and they may not have a voice to communicate what's going on."

He says when families are settling into a new country there are so many things parents deal with — like trying to find a job and dealing with culture shock — that a child's struggles might not be noticed right away.

So, the event is helping train kids to be resilient and equipping them to talk about mental health — and bring what they learn back to school to recognize when something is wrong and help others.

Chuks Emeka came to the United Voices Summit hoping he can learn how to help.

"I'm from Nigeria, the way we handle things over there is different from here," Emeka says. "Here we have more help, more resources.

"I think if we come here as a newcomer we have to reach out we have more help and we can know how to mix into the community … instead of feeling isolated." 

His takeaway so far is that as an immigrant, and a young person, you need to know your worth and that you are equal — don't let people look down on you. 

Chuks Emeka came to Calgary from Nigeria. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Hanne Brahim helped organize the event, she works with Immigrant Services Calgary.

"Youth want to participate, it tells us it tells us that there's a need for it, and they want to speak up and they want to get to know other people's stories and build that sense of community."

She says the hope is that kids at this seminar will leave knowing they can speak up and they can be brave in the face of bullies and adversity.

In April, a nine-year-old girl took her own life after her parents say she was being bullied at her northeast school. According to her family, Amal Alshteiwi was being targeted in Arabic for her looks and the fact she was wearing a hijab. 

Alshteiwi's family came to Calgary, fleeing war-torn Syria three years ago. 

After an investigation into the allegations of bullying, the Calgary Board of Education has said incidents are rare in its schools and it has sound regulations and practices in place to help. 

At the time, Hassan said, the tragedy prompted the community to come together and talk about how to help. And this summit is part of that healing, part of what he says will help stop this kind of tragedy in the future.

"When we come together, we make things happen," Hassan said. "We have an action bias."

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi addresses attendees at the United Voices Summit. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Mayor Naheed Nenshi watched the drum circle and spoke to the kids about his own experience, growing up in Calgary's northeast. 

"There's a real concern in the community, that there are kids and newcomer youth who don't feel safe at school, who don't feel like they can achieve their full potential in our city and our community," said Nenshi. "And that's a shame." 

But he said what was inspiring about the United Voices summit was that kids are willing to come together and do something about that uneasy feeling.

"It's the kids who are showing the leadership and saying, we see a problem and we're going to fix it," Nenshi said. "And I think that's critical."