How a youth centre in Park Ex helps immigrant teens pursue their dreams

The Jeunesse Unie youth centre in Parc-Extension helps about 100 young people every week after school. There is tutoring and a good dose of encouragement — and all services are offered free of charge.

Jeunesse Unie is a gateway to success for many recent arrivals

Raed Jamal, 16, dreams of becoming a mechanical engineer. The tutors at Jeunesse Unie help him get through his schoolwork to get there, he says. (Jennifer Yoon/CBC) (Jennifer Yoon/CBC)

Professor, pilot, actress and engineer — these are only a few of the young dreams that have been carefully placed in a time capsule and buried in front of the Jeunesse Unie building on Bloomfield Avenue in Montreal's Parc-Extension neighbourhood.

About 100 young residents of Park Ex — as it's known to many — come to the youth centre every week after school. There, they find help with homework, a chance to explore passions and a good dose of encouragement — without having to pay a penny.

The clientele includes 16-year-old Raed Jamal, who dreams of becoming a mechanical engineer but says he needs help staying motivated to get through school.

Jeunesse Unie, he says, helps him find the encouragement he needs.

"They help me with my homework, they help me with my school. Afterwards, we have fun of course. We learn about new stuff, and if I have a problem, they help me with my problems."

It was also at Jeunesse Unie that Jamal found his first Canadian friends and became acclimated to his new country, when he immigrated to Park Ex from Saudi Arabia with his parents five years ago.

Habib Rehman, 20, says he practically grew up at the youth centre. In addition to a career in astrophysics, Rehman says he dreams of giving back to the community, by helping fund centres like Jeunesse Unie. (Jennifer Yoon/CBC)

It's a resource that's critical in the neighbourhood, says 20-year-old Habib Rehman, who says he relied on the centre throughout his youth.

"To be honest, when you grow up in Park Ex, you don't have the same opportunities as everybody else," says Rehman, who immigrated to the neighbourhood from Pakistan with his family as a baby.

As a kid, Rehman says he didn't have a desk at home, or a laptop. Without Jeunesse Unie, he says, he wouldn't have been able to get the skills he needs to pursue his passion — a career in astrophysics.

The youth centre was the place he could go for the resources he needed to do well in school — and to get help.

"They won't let you go until they make sure that your task is well and done," he says, recalling countless assignments he completed at the centre.

Lude Sylla, 17, says discovered her passion for acting at Jeunesse Unie. It was a bit of work getting her parents on board but she says they now support her career path. (Jennifer Yoon/CBC)

Others say they discovered their dreams at the youth centre.

"It started here at Jeunesse Unie," said Lude Sylla, who at 17 is studying to become an actress. She recalls taking cinema classes at the centre.

Sylla says she knew her chosen path would be an uphill battle, especially as a part of an immigrant family, and with parents who worried for the possibility of an unstable career as an artist.

"They are happy for me now," she says, "But they weren't sure at first."

A time capsule full of dreams

"We want kids to believe in their dream," said Richard Vachon, the director of Jeunesse Unie, pointing out the time capsule outside the building containing over 1,000 scraps of paper, each one representing the dream of a young person. The capsule will be unearthed in 2030.

Vachon says the parents of the youth he serves believe wholeheartedly in their children but often live with meager financial means.

Jeunesse Unie, he says, provides a little extra support so young people are exposed to various experiences — and get the support they need to thrive.

"We have to help them to believe in themselves, to believe in their dreams, to believe they can do it, with work and effort, they can be successful in realizing their dreams."

Vachon says at the centre, young people are encouraged to work hard, and to adhere to principles of nonviolence, solidarity and inclusion as they work toward their dreams.

"We don't say it's magic," he said, but at the centre, young people are made to feel welcome, appreciated and supported.

Richard Vachon, the director of Jeunesse Unie, has worked at the centre for 28 years. He says the biggest challenge is finding funding to keep much-needed services at the centre going. (Jennifer Yoon/CBC)

Jeunesse Unie also provides information and resources so young people have what they need to pursue a dream.

"When you're a first-generation immigrant or when you're new, you don't have access to as much information," said Thilini Weerathunga.

"So how does college work? How does university work?" she said. "When you're the first to do it, it's really, really scary and intimidating."

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Featured VideoAt the Jeunesse Unie youth centre in Parc-Extension, many face challenges in reaching their career goals, including youth from immigrant or lower-income families.

Vachon says his challenge now is finding funding. He had launched a foundation called Rêves d'Avenir Foundation in 2015 to support the work being done at the centre but says he had to shut it down during the pandemic because of a lack of funding.

"I feel like funding for places like these would be awesome, you know?" says Weerathunga, the youth worker. "I think it's an investment."

The youth who benefited from the youth centre, for their part, say they now also dream of giving back.

"Maybe through funding projects, without necessarily gentrifying the area. Continuing to decrease poverty rates, or simply fund community centres," says Rehman.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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Jennifer Yoon


Jennifer Yoon is a journalist at CBC Montreal.