Newcomer youth determined to establish identity, sense of belonging without losing their culture
‘I’m my own person and I have a voice to be open about it without putting any wall around me’
Mack and Wilson Reimche are active fraternal twin brothers who adore playing with their many, vivacious cats. Wilson loves gymnastics, specializing in trampoline, and is a dog cookie baker on the side. Mack loves soccer. He is a goalie in a junior premier league.
But their peers don't always associate them with their talents or their passions; sometimes all they see is the colour of their skin.
Mack recalls a classmate telling him in Grade 4 that he "hates Black people. He got into a huge talk saying that all Black people go to jail."
"The school just talked to the boy about it but didn't do much. I did track his father down," Mack laughed, remembering the incident. "Even though I had tons of my friends beside me because they wanted to support me, he still didn't believe me when I told him what his son had said to me."
Despite feeling loved and accepted for who they are by their parents, family and friends, that experience had a big effect on him.
I spoke with five youth from three different families and three completely different life experiences, but whose stories all had similar threads around adaptation and seeking a sense of belonging — threads I saw in my own story growing up as a young Ghanaian-Italian in a predominantly white environment.
'They don't teach about racism'
Mack and Wilson were born in Haiti in 2009 and moved here at seven months old when Jackie and Greg Reimche, who are white, adopted them. They live a 15-minute drive outside of Saskatoon. They identify as Canadians born in Haiti.
"I have a beautiful family," Mack said.
But their struggles in school began early. They started their education in a school in a small town and were the only Black kids there. Wilson would come home with bite marks on his arm.
"We didn't do anything because kids are silly, but then he would get sent to the principal's office for doing the same thing," said Jackie. "He was receiving the punishment and nobody seemed to be getting the same treatment."
"I had a phone call or an email or a note home every single day from a teacher saying why the twins were bad. They were in the principal's office every day."
Jackie said that sometimes they "probably deserved to be in the principal's office," but they were the only kids, it seemed, getting in trouble — and it was relentless.
Mack and Wilson now attend a more diverse school in Saskatoon but "even in this school, depending on the teacher, they're still kind of targeted or being the ones to get in trouble," said Jackie.
"They don't teach about racism," Wilson added. "We learn social studies but not racism. It would be nice to talk about Black history, but I still learn a bunch of things."
Instead, he gets most of his information through TikTok.
Jackie said: "One of our goals is to make more Black friends and find places to belong."
They're keen to get their sons more involved in the area's Black communities, and they've signed them up for an Afro-Mentorship Initiative program, which aims to empower girls and boys to embrace their cultural identity.
'People should know about other people's heritage'
Salome Kyamundu sometimes feels that despite living here, she doesn't always belong. This has been true since she was little, because she was the only Black kid in her class.
The 13-year-old moved to Saskatoon with her sister, Martha (two years her senior), from Congo together with their parents when they were toddlers. Salome identifies as African and, occasionally, Canadian-Congolese.
"I wanted to talk to my classmates about the toys I play with at home or the food we eat but they couldn't really understand, so I actually didn't talk to them about the little things that are part of my experience," she said.
She shares how one day a classmate accused her of lying, adding: "That's why I don't like you [Black] people: you always spread lies." Salome got upset and they both ended up in the principal's office. Salome suggested including more African history in their studies.
She believes this approach would not only help children from different backgrounds understand her better, but could also assist her in learning something new about others.
"The less we speak about race relations, the higher is the chance that the younger generation will grow up thinking that they shouldn't talk about this around school because it's a bad thing," said Martha. "But it's normal. People should know about other people's heritage."
Martha feels all she really knows is her life in Canada, so that sense of belonging comes naturally to her. She is bubbly and people get attached to her easily. Salome, on the other hand, is social but she opens up only when she really trusts the people she becomes friends with.
Martha said she's also benefited from going to a multicultural school that teaches African culture.
My life experiences — good and bad — have shaped who I am
Mack, Wilson, Salome and Martha remind me of my own determination at their age to make my voice heard and to stand up for myself when I was treated unfairly.
I was born in Ghana but moved to Italy at the age of nine to join my mother. In my first school in Italy, I was the only Black student. I bonded with the only other kid who was a foreigner — one of the few friends to invite me to their house.
The last two years at middle school scared and scarred me. I lost most of my confidence. It was during this season of my life that bullies made sure I knew they didn't think I belonged, uttering hurtful comments like "N—-, vattene in Africa" ("Go back to Africa").
I still loved Italy, and I felt that it was my country because I didn't know any history about Ghana. I studied the Roman civilization, Italian modern history, and its quest to grab a piece of Africa, in which they succeeded by taking Somalia. I read Dante, Leopardi and Petrarch. I studied Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Caravaggio in art class.
Yet kids at school called me derogatory names based on my skin colour. I didn't have anyone to share the stories with but my diary. I found refuge in writing poems to my motherland.
Italy is still my home, Ghana also and now Canada. The good memories I have of my childhood and adulthood in Italy surpass the bad. Therefore, I cherish all my life experiences; they've made me who I am today.
Breaking down walls
Despite Miheret Arega moving to Saskatoon five years ago, she still finds it hard to call Canada home and continues to identify as Ethiopian.
However, the feeling of not wanting to go anywhere else is starting to settle in her soul. She has managed to adapt thanks to her church family and connections she's made.
Miheret is becoming more introverted since being in Saskatoon, something that has caused her to reassess her identity.
"I come from a country where I'm always outside — I always play outside; I go to people's houses. Coming here, where people are geared towards their individuality and love their own space, that has had a big impact on me," she said. "I can't just go to somebody's house without invitation. I have to plan ahead and get an invitation."
She said in Ethiopia, she could stop by a friend's house whenever she wanted.
"That has really affected me and has changed my identity. This has become part of the search of who I am in the world. Sometimes I wonder why this is changing in my life and if it is going to affect me positively or negatively?"
Involving herself in things outside of her comfort zone is helping her overcome that change. She works with Family Service of Saskatoon and the Saskatoon Open Door Society to aid young newcomers in finding that sense of belonging at the outset of their journey in Canada.
When Miheret came to Saskatoon she didn't have that kind of help initially. For example, at her high school, she only had an orientation guide who pointed out where to find the educational assistant. The following day, she was presented with her schedule that baffled her because the school system here is different than what she was used to in Ethiopia.
Getting involved in these organizations is helping her find her voice and understand that she can make a difference.
"Sometimes there are people who are in the shadows of others and these volunteering opportunities are helping me break the walls that I had placed around myself because I didn't want anyone to enter," she said. "Nowadays, youth will put up a wall around themselves because they feel like there is no one to talk to. Those walls I was able to break and become who I am."
Last year, she was the only person to represent Saskatchewan in a national youth leadership conference.
"That's also helping me identify who I am and realizing that I'm my own person and I have a voice to be open about it without putting any wall around me or accepting anything that can be against who I am."
This piece was inspired by Threads: Cultural Conversations, a two-day online event of national scope being organized and hosted by the Saskatoon Open Door Society. It will be held virtually on Jan. 20 and 21, 2021. Learn more about it here.
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.