Outreach: Extending a Guiding Hand

The Newcomer Youth Civic Engagement Program

On a chilly Saturday in early March a lively group of youth gathered at the Newcomers Employment and Education Development Services (N.E.E.D.S.) building on the edge of Winnipeg’s historic Exchange District. Their energy, excitement, and friendliness were palpable as they took their seats at several round tables. The Newcomer Youth Engagement Program graduation and awards day had arrived. Thirty five students were about to be acknowledged for successfully completing an intensive course that has prepared them for their new life and opportunities in Canada. The group consisted of young adults from African countries such as Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. One young man, Blaise Ruberangabo, spoke of the long journey to Canada his family had to undergo in order to escape the civil strife and lack of educational opportunity in his country of origin. His dream is to receive a good education and one day to become an RCMP officer. Blaise not only received his certificate of completion, but also two awards for leadership and attendance. He spoke candidly about his commitment to avoid negative peer associations and risky behaviours.

The Newcomer Youth Civic Engagement Program, which seeks to assist refugee youth to integrate in their community, is led by Matthew Fast. The program empowers these youth by developing their leadership skills, community connections, cultural savvy, and employment skills. The program targets new arrivals ages 16 to 21 with the intention of developing the skills needed to be successful in their new home. While in the program they learn about what Canadians expect of an employee, as well as about the cultural values Canadians hold dear, such as work ethics and gender equity.

The attendees are also taught communication skills and money management. One-on-one support is provided in the art if compiling a resume and writing a cover letter. The program also encourages community involvement, which in turn promotes a commitment to the well-being of their fellow citizens. The youth are encouraged to help each other push out of their comfort zones and get involved in their new community. This in turn forges friendships, promotes confidence, and improves social skills.

Across the country programs are springing up to meet the needs of vulnerable refugee youth who are new to Canada. The program in Winnipeg spearheaded sister programs in Toronto, Halifax, and Vancouver, and the students from those cities were able to connect and share learnings through a conference held in February. According to Matthew Fast, of the Newcomer Youth Civic Engagement Program, there are several reasons which contribute to the attraction the gang lifestyle has on young refugees. Youth can feel significantly isolated when landing in a new country and culture, with a new language to learn. Often their parents are struggling with their own issues, compounding the isolation. The developmental desire teens experience to connect and fit in is also a factor. When they are approached and asked to hang out with a gang of more experienced youth, they don’t always recognize the dangers. Gradually they are drawn into the world of crime, drugs, and arrests. These dangers do not manifest themselves early on, as the youth are too busy orienting themselves in a new culture and school setting, but often come into play on or after their third year in the country.

Fast describes some of the other pressures that can contribute to sending these youth off track: difficulties at school, tensions at home created by the parents’ own struggle to adjust, and the negative influence of peers. While attempting to fit in these youth struggle with language barriers, a lack of social networks, and little community support. They often arrive already traumatized and vulnerable psychologically from experiences such as war, persecution, and inter-tribal strife in their countries of origin. Many have witnessed brutality perpetrated on family and friends. Gravitation to gangs is but a symptom of unresolved issues in their lives.

These newly arrived youth are like teens everywhere. They want to belong, fit in, be cool, and have friends. To be cool in our Western culture unfortunately means displaying material wealth. Access to disposable income, fashionable clothes, and the ubiquitous cell phone are necessary items in the minds of most youth. These pressures are very real for newcomer youth who are already feeling like outsiders. Risks identified by youth workers, and consistent with literature about gangs include disenfranchisement from school, society, and peers. This manifests itself in bullying, teasing, or simply being ignored, all very painful for young adults trying to fit in. Needing money to acquire the trappings that are necessary to fit in is a particular risk to gang involvement. Those who work with at risk refugee youth say that if their normal desires for connection, attention, and power are not met by peers, family, or schools, then they will turn to less desirable sources to meet their needs.

The value of the Newcomer Youth Civic Engagement Program can be seen as making a difference at this point of need. Through mentoring, friendship, support, and passing on valuable knowledge, these young people can better negotiate this new culture and so acquire the skills and resiliency to find employment and friends. Examples of the imaginative work that has been invested in the program by staff and community member are abundant. The graduates were engaged in a tour of the Human Rights Museum, attended workshops on job skills, and listened to presentations by the RCMP. Elder Dan Thomas and other members of the aboriginal community came and spoke about themselves and their own struggles with the dominant culture.

Guest speakers who had once been refugees themselves inspired the youth with their stories of success in the Canadian community. One such speaker was Devon Clunis, the first black police chief in both Winnipeg and in Canada. Clunis arrived in Canada from Jamaica as a boy and at first struggled in school. He was helped by a teacher and others who influenced him positively and put him on a productive life path. His struggle with his racial identity and racism was a point of connection with the African refugee youth who listened to him speak. Issues of racism, bullying and the reality of socio-economic differences are discussed openly in the Newcomer Youth Civic Engagement Program. Mentors come in ‘all shapes and sizes’ in the diverse community that is Canada. When this varied community rallies around youth, much potential can be achieved.

The young adults who commit to the program have access to computers where they can complete homework assignments, a small gym, and a game room. Snacks and meals are served on a regular basis and the food is collected from Winnipeg Harvest and purchased by N.E.E.D.S. Exposure to career opportunities, workplace education and experience, mentorship, and psycho-social support are also made available. The organization is non-profit and provides accessible services and support to immigrant and refugee children, youth, and their families. Their Newcomer Youth Civic Engagement Program reveals the best that is Canada. For more information about this program contact the Executive Director, Margaret von Lau at

By: Alison Zenisek