Toronto

Milton sports league a slam dunk for immigrant youth

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.

'By the end of the season you see a different personality,' says Imran Merchant

Hana Merchant, 11, says she's always loved sports and considers basketball her 'escape.' (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

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.

The Milton Youth Recreation Centre began five years ago with about 30 participants. Today, the league has grown to about 200 players. Many of the youth involved are Muslim, but all backgrounds and religions are welcome. 

"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.

At the league's fifth season opener on Saturday, each of the girls received one of the Raptors-themed hijabs, a welcome surprise to many.

"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. 

Imran Merchant is the Milton Youth Recreation Centre's executive director. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

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.

Coaches say basketball aside, they want the players to learn about teamwork and inclusivity. The league also includes a mental health component. 

"[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.  

At the league's fifth season opener on Saturday, each of the girls received one of the Raptors-themed hijabs, a welcome surprise to many. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

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."


 

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