Refugee youth 'falling through the cracks' in Manitoba's education system, report finds

A new report examines barriers refugee youth aged 15 to 21 face in the province, from confusion within the educational system to the additional pressures of supporting family, all while tackling their sometimes traumatic past.
A group waits to welcome refugees from Syria to Saskatoon in a 2015 file photo. A new report on refugee youth in Winnipeg says more funding needs to be put into supporting youth aged 15-21. Many of them struggle with a language barrier while attending school and taking on additional responsibilities for their families. (Evan Radford/CBC)

Refugee youth often "fall through the cracks" in Winnipeg's education system, according to a new study of teenagers and young adults who had limited access to school before immigrating to Canada.

The report, called "Supported Transitions," was authored by a coalition of newcomer organizations in Manitoba and examines barriers faced by many refugees aged 15 to 21.

These include issues like confusion within the educational system, additional pressures outside of school — including financially supporting their families — and dealing with sometimes traumatic pasts.

"This is a small but really high-needs group of youth," the report's lead author, Nicole Jowett, said.

Before arriving in Canada, many lived in refugee camps or in conflict zones, meaning their education was disrupted. In some cases, they never even went to school, said Jowett, a community-based researcher with the Newcomer Education Coalition.

"Even though they come with many strengths, a lot of [these] youth are falling through the cracks."

Students at Hugh John Macdonald school in Winnipeg celebrating with kids from the literacy and academic learning centre. The research found schools across the city have different policies for helping refugee students. (Suzanne Dufresne/CBC)

The report specifically looked at the older youth who have "interrupted schooling," meaning they had limited access to schooling before arriving in Canada, and may lack reading, writing and oral English skills because of it.

All study participants pointed to unmet basic needs — particularly housing instability and unaffordable transit — that limited their opportunities as students.

Many of the gaps are felt by older refugee youth, Jowett said.

Most of the youth surveyed described discouraging experiences linked to their age and eligibility in school, the report said. Many were turned away from multiple schools because they were over 18, despite the fact that they have the right to attend until age 21.

It also identified significant confusion with E-credits, which are adapted English-language courses in Manitoba meant to help transition these students to regular courses.

The report found many students graduated high school unaware the E-credits are not recognized by post-secondary schools. It recommends reforming the guidelines for the use of the E-credits.

'Amazing perseverance'

There are pressures beyond school too, the report found, including past trauma and the need for refugee youth to support their families — including things like translating for their parents or taking part-time jobs, Jowett said.

She recalls hearing from one young man about his need to hold a job and go to school at the same time.

"He would work night shifts so that he could go to school during the day. He would work until four in the morning, go home and have a couple of hours of sleep, and then wake up so that he could go to school," Jowett said.

"They have this strong need to develop their literacy, academic and language skills, but meanwhile they're facing a lot of adult responsibilities."

The report also found that policies for helping youth varied between schools, and found a lack of support for young adults who are still struggling to learn English — in part due to federal funding cuts to higher-level language classes.

The report recommends the current review of Manitoba's education system include increased funding for these students.

Syrian refugee students take an English language class at Victoria Albert School in May 2016. A report looking at older refugee students has found they face unique challenges, in particular as they age out of high school. (CBC)

The research was conducted throughout 2019 and involved interviews with 42 people, including students, parents, refugee support groups, English language teachers, and school administrators at all of the Winnipeg-area school divisions.

Youth came from countries including Syria, Iraq, Sudan and Somalia, among others.

Despite the challenges they face, Jowett said it's also important to note the "amazing perseverance" of the youths. 

"These youth are coming with a range of experiences that might be very different from youth here," she said.

"It's important to understand their strengths, skills, and experiences."

About the Author

Marina von Stackelberg is a CBC journalist based in Winnipeg. She previously worked for CBC in Halifax and Sudbury. Connect with her @CBCMarina or


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.