Refugee youth group fights isolation, promotes community

Canadian Justice Initiatives and Reception House of Waterloo Region have teamed up to run a youth group for refugees with the aim of connecting the youth to resources and new friends in their Waterloo region communities.

Youth are encouraged to form positive relationships with mentors outside the refugee community

Youth rush to the centre line to claim a ball during a hair-raising game of dodge ball Thursday evening. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)

When you walk in the back door of St. John the Evangelist church in downtown Kitchener on a Thursday evening, the sound of pounding footsteps comes rushing to greet you.

In the gym, about fifteen teenagers and just as many adult volunteers are flying back and forth, playing a game of soccer that is both friendly and completely serious. 

On the surface, it has all the characteristics of your average youth group, but this club has one unique feature: all the youth are refugees who are new to Waterloo region and new to Canada.

Salomon Hinneh, 19, came to Canada in 2015 from Côte d’Ivoire and joined the youth group soon after it started in the fall of 2016. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)

"I was something that I wasn't [thinking] I could like," says 19-year-old Salomon Hinneh during a break from the game. He came to Canada in 2015 from Côte d'Ivoire and joined the youth group soon after it began in the fall of 2016.

"I just just found out that it is something important and I just found out that it is something good for me... Just to meet other refugees who are just reaching to Canada, to come to meet new friends and participate together, and still having fun."

The group, called the New Canadian Youth Connection, isn't just a place for young refugees to have fun. It's also a place to learn English, to get help with homework, and to build relationships and connections with people outside the refugee community. 

Group organizer Theodore Nicholson says he's trying to get the youth to mix with regular Canadians. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)

"The idea behind it is that the volunteers will come and they meet with the youth and through this natural interaction they develop organic relationships," says organizer Theodore Nicholson.

"Ideally, we meet at the program, but that friendship fosters and blossoms and now we take it from inside this location and into the community, where we do other activities."

Some of these organic relationships have already started to form, including one between a participant and volunteer Maria Andrei-Gedja.

Volunteer Maria Andrei-Gedja says she's learned the true meaning of friendship from her time with the youth group. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)

"I didn't think that she associated such a strong friendship with me, so when she wanted to reach out to me ... I was kind of surprised," Andrei-Gedja recalls. "Sometimes you don't even see it happening and you don't always see how much the kids latch on to you."

But she says the experience of working with and getting to know the young people, in spite of the significant language barrier, has been a rewarding one.

"They show me what friendship comes like, that you don't necessarily have to speak the same language or come from the same place. You can find those commonalities. I think what they've shown me more than anything is that hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better day, and - you know - we all belong here. We all have our place in Waterloo region."

When the teenagers come out on recreation night, the organizers want them to feel like they belong. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)

Creating that sense of belonging is what the organizers are aiming for. When the teenagers come out for recreation night Thursday evenings or homework help on Mondays and Wednesdays, it's important they feel at home.

Chris Cowie, executive director of CJI, says the personal relationships go a long way to fighting feelings of isolation and alienation.

"There's a basic truth in where there's a lack of those kinds of relationships, there is a tendency to be angry about things, to feel like you don't really fit in, and that at times can even result in other types of behaviours that we don't want to see," he says. 

"Now, I'm not saying that that's inevitable. But it certainly is a big help when somebody has a positive relationship that's built right from the start to assist them with that."

The program was funded for one year through a $74,900 grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation. 

Organizers say that funding will run out on May 31, 2017, and that they are actively looking for donors to fund the second year of the program.