April 10, 2017

Building Welcoming Communities and Schools

Supporting newcomer youth now, and planning for sustainable futures

Supporting newcomer Canadians in their transition into their new life involves coordinating various services and building welcoming communities. Particularly for youth, meeting their immediate needs for education, health, and wellness, as well as planning for their futures, has considerable implications for schools and immigrant services across the country. As a high percentage of the Syrian refugees that Canada has accepted are youth, understanding the current strengths of various initiatives and the ongoing challenges these young people face is critical.

Refugee and Immigrant Student Integration

As part of a larger, national study on refugee student integration, Dr. Tom Ricento and Dania El Chaar, a Werklund PhD candidate, have spearheaded research in the Calgary region. The larger project, led by U Winnipeg’s Jan Stewart, takes place in four provinces, with professionals, educators, and researchers collaborating to inform different aspects of the study. The project aims to help answer questions and provide direction to stakeholders in schools, immigrant services, and others involved with supporting newcomer Canadians.

The research team conducted observations in newcomer youth programs in communities and schools. They also held 50 interviews with individuals from different demographics, including:

  • Newcomer youth (both refugees and immigrants)
  • Canadian-born students
  • Parents
  • School personnel - teachers, counsellors, administrators, etc.
  • Immigrant-serving organizations - school settlement agents, program coordinators
  • Community Program coordinators

After working with these stakeholders, the researchers brought each of these groups together in a regional meeting to discuss their preliminary findings. Interestingly, the whole group then provided their own recommendations, based on their experiences and the research data. The researchers hoped this approach would better represent the voices of the participants, reflecting their lived experiences and needs more accurately.

Programs and Services

The study’s main findings addressed current best practices, challenges, and these recommendations. These included ideas related to integration, support programs, and counselling services:

Integration - helping newcomers adjust, integrate, and get involved with Canadian society - involves efforts from both newcomers and other Canadians. Building acceptance depends on reaching out and creating positive, welcoming cultures, not just tolerating immigrants or expecting them to conform. 

After-school, apprenticeship, and community programs have a great potential to address current gaps and challenges in how these groups transition. However, changes to funding structures means these services are not always available, or sustainable long-term.

There is also a need for more comprehensive career counselling, beyond resume and interview preparation, which must be available to these newcomers. This is particularly relevant, as their data shows refugees young and old often experience difficulties in finding meaningful employment.

Mental health counselling plays an important role in supporting newcomers, but counsellors and educators may not be prepared to respond to students with trauma or violence-related health issues. Helping teachers to understand how to welcome and support these students in the classroom is also essential, in order to address their unique needs.

Taking Action

To help instigate change and progress, the researchers are designing resources to guide stakeholders in taking action. This includes developing a targeted curriculum document in conjunction with the competencies developed by Alberta education on career development for newcomer youth. Entitled “Bridging Two Worlds: Culturally Responsive Career Development Programs and Services to Meet the Needs of Newcomer and Refugee Children in Canada: A Guide to Curriculum Integration and Implementation,” the document will provide clear direction for educators and counsellors, with a focus on teaching practice and advising for these students.