The power to change lives: Theatre course for newcomers in Winnipeg builds life skills

A new after-school theatre workshop for newcomer youth in Winnipeg hopes to give them more than just acting skills — it aims to help them learn to share their stories, build confidence and find community.

'The transformation on these kids was massive,' facilitator Al-Montaser Al-Jajeh says

Al-Montaser Al-Jajeh leads a group of youth in theatre exercises. (NEEDS Inc/Facebook)

A new after-school theatre workshop for newcomer youth in Winnipeg hopes to give them more than just acting skills — it aims to help them learn to share their stories, build confidence and find community.

Offered by the Newcomers Employment and Education Development Services (NEEDS) Centre, the Monday evening program is open to newcomers age 12 to 25.

Facilitator Al-Montaser Al-Jajeh says theatre holds the power to change lives, especially for those whose lives have been turned upside down, leaving them trying to adapt to a new one.

He knows that first-hand because it's how he found his voice. 

Al-Jajeh, 28, is originally from Syria and spent years as a refugee in Jordanian camp before finding his way to Canada.

He was introduced to theatre while in the camp. Performing in a few plays had a striking impact on his overall confidence, he said.

"It's really difficult to put into words, but I felt like it gave me agency over myself, over my story. When I was able to express for myself, not somebody else telling my story, it just felt very empowering," he said.

He eventually became a facilitator in the camp for a program called Drama for Refuge and started working with a group of 100 Syrian and Jordanian youth. There, he saw the same metamorphosis.

"The transformation on these kids was massive. It was evident just by looking at them, in terms of physicality, the way they walked, the way they carried themselves around, how they shared their ideas, their presence," he said.

Other life skills are developed as well, he said. 

"As simple as something like presentation skills — that's something they can use in school and for a job interview," Al-Jajeh said.

"We also work on our physicality and posture, which sends people specific messages. That is part of their communication process."

Al-Montaser Al-Jajeh says the rewarding transformation of shy youth into confident community members is why he is committed to theatre for newcomers in Winnipeg. (NEEDS Inc/Facebook)

Now he's bringing that to newcomer youth in Winnipeg.

"I want to give back to the community that helped me. I come from the same background, so for me there's that sense of duty to give back to my community, not only as a newcomer, but also as a member of the artistic community," he said.

The five-week program at NEEDS, on Notre Dame Avenue near Arthur Street, on the fringe of Winnipeg's Exchange District, begins Feb. 24 and wraps up with a play by everyone involved.

Once that's over, Al-Jajeh will encourage anyone who is interested in taking the next step to audition for Sawa Theatre, an English-Arabic theatre program where he's the director.

Al-Jajeh is busy but he's rewarded when he sees participants' faces light up and their shells fall away.

"The happiness I see on youth is very fulfilling and it's why I do it," he said.

One nine-year-old boy was so soft-spoken that his voice could barely be heard when he said his name, but after Al-Jajeh worked with him for nearly six months at Sawa, the boy played the lead role in a production of Oliver Twist.

"He was singing, dancing, running around on stage in front of a full house," Al-Jajeh said.

"It's a fulfilling job, honestly. As simple as that."

For anyone interested in the program, check the NEEDS Facebook page or website or drop by the centre at 251-A Notre Dame Ave.


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

With files from Marcy Markusa and Wendy Parker