Milton sports league a slam dunk for immigrant youth
'By the end of the season you see a different personality,' says Imran Merchant
Running onto the basketball court, high-fiving fans — for a moment, a group of Milton youth are made to feel like basketball stars.
But this isn't the NBA. Instead, it's a volunteer-run non-profit youth sports league — about a 40-minute drive from Toronto — as a way of helping immigrant families to put their children into sport.
"We see those children who start with zero confidence coming into the league scared to touch a ball, scared to talk to people, and then by the end of the season you see a different personality," said Imran Merchant, the centre's executive director.
This is also the first year that the centre has an all-girls league.
The organization is also working with Hijabi Ballers, a Toronto-based group that inspired the Maple Leafs Sports League to create Nike Pro hijabs emblazoned with the Toronto Raptors' team logo.
"We want to pull our girls in and show them they're just as good ... And build that resiliency and learn about the teamwork and learn those talents and skills that it takes to be a good basketball player," said girls' coach Abeeda Syed.
Merchant says the league also helps families integrate and bond with others.
"It's just fantastic to see how not only diverse it is, but how close everyone is together," he said.
"[There're] a lot more different variables to deal with especially in terms of youth. Sports is an outlet, it's a way to come out and focus and be part of something greater," said boys' coach Faizaan Hussain.
That's something that resonates with 11-year-old Hana Merchant, who says she's always loved sports.
"As a girl, I've always loved sports ... It's a way to keep fit, it's a way to just play, hang out and it's a great thing to do with friends and a great activity."
"It's my escape."