'It's comforting for them': Program pairs refugee children with culturally similar dolls and stuffed bears

Welcome packages for new refugees in Winnipeg will now pair kids with a culturally appropriate doll or bear to help comfort them during the transition.

Winnipeg's Welcome Place to distribute 40 care packages to newcomer children

Kevine, 8, received this doll in her welcome package from the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council. She arrived in Winnipeg with her Congolese family in September. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Welcome packages for new refugees in Winnipeg will now pair young kids with a doll or stuffed bear dressed in clothing representing their homeland to help comfort them during the resettlement process.

"It's a huge impact, [the journey] affects them emotionally, by receiving those dolls it's kind of a relief, a comfort," said Flora Aruna at the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council (MIIC), also known as Welcome Place.

The program, called Touch of Kindness, gives welcome packages containing either a doll or a teddy bear for children under 11 years old, while older kids get a tote filled with age-appropriate gifts like journals, music players, and books.

The MIIC already provides donated care packages to newcomers to help with their settlement, but going forward hope to include the dolls and bears to give children a companion to help them with the transition to a new country.

Dolls that have similar physical characteristics are paired with children under 11 years old. The dolls, or stuffed bears, also come with culturally representative clothing. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

"These are special because they convey social beliefs and they convey their culture," said Aruna.

"When they come here they are different than other people, and they'll say, 'oh I'll have somebody that looks like me,'" she said.

"They'll feel more valued, they'll feel included."

'Comforting when kids are scared'

In November, MIIC was contacted by an American non-profit organization called Don't Cry...I'm Here, which works to pair dolls and bears with newly arrived immigrants in Minneapolis.

The organization offered to donate 40 packages made for refugee families.

The packages include a doll or a bear with clothing and accessories that represent a specific culture or country, as well as books, blankets and other toys.

Non-profit organization, Don't Cry...I'm Here, finds dolls and clothing that represent various refugee cultures and pairs them with newcomer families. (Submitted by Don't Cry...I'm Here)

The dolls are designed to look like children from places like Syria, Eritrea, Congo, or Somalia.

"We do a lot of research to find out what is their traditional clothing," said Gail Harvey who started Don't Cry... I'm Here. "It's comforting for them."

"A doll and a bear is very comforting when kids are scared," she said.

Harvey worked in the doll business for years before starting the organization that now has 600 volunteers working across the country to source the dolls and clothing.

Harvey said she saw a need for the dolls in her community's own refugee population, but after immigration rules tightened under the Donald Trump administration the numbers of newcomers dwindled.

"As they come to their new land, and everything is so different, and they see something that is familiar, it validates their culture," she said over a video call from Minneapolis.

"We have all of this, we built this, we need to go to where refugees are coming," said Harvey of the surplus of dolls.

"There's a lot of news in the United States about how Canada is so welcoming to refugees."

Harvey said she chose MIIC because of its proximity to Minneapolis and because it helps large numbers of refugees.

Dolls and bears to be distributed

Staff from MIIC met Harvey in Fargo last month to pick up 40 packages made for refugee children.

On Monday, the first of the packages were distributed to a Congolese family who arrived in Winnipeg in September.

"It makes me happy just having people who received us when we came, and having all these gifts we are grateful for that," said Emmanuel Nkurikiyinka, the father of five children that range from one to 16 years old.

This Congolese family arrived in Winnipeg in September and received the first of 40 care packages containing the culturally appropriate toys. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Zeburie​ Mukaremara, the children's mother, said the toys will give her children something to play with but will also provide some comfort.

"They won't be lonely anymore," she said through a translator.

"As a girl, having a doll with a dress, it makes [my daughter] happy," she said.

The older children received soccer balls in their care packages.

"They'll be able to play soccer during the summer," she said.

Watch:

Welcome packages for new refugees in Winnipeg will now pair young kids with a doll or stuffed bear dressed in clothing representing their homeland to help comfort them during the resettlement process. 2:12