Passages engenders empathy among Northumberland youth
Submitted Photo Dealing with shouting military men (portrayed here by Darren Shutt) while on the run for one's life is the kind of frightening situation refugees often deal with, as young participants in the recent Passages event discovered.
The Passages evening for young people recently hosted by Northumberland Youth Unlimited was such a success that organizers are already getting several requests to repeat the event in local high schools.
Held Jan. 22 at the Cobourg Community Centre, the youth-awareness event was designed to educate young people in advance of the arrival of perhaps as many as a dozen Syrian refugee families to Northumberland through various sponsorship projects. Executive director Tony Posthumus wanted to give those aged 14 to 19 a look at why this issue has arisen and how they might most helpfully and positively respond.
The 65 young people present were split into family groups to experience four role-playing exercises developed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: escape and separation, border crossing, temporary shelter, and meeting the local population.
Each family group encountered a series of stressful and frightening challenges — finding family members in the midst of airplane bombings, attempting to cross a border while being yelled at by border guards, filling out an immigration form in an unknown language, having their shelter destroyed by a wind storm, securing help for a member of their family giving birth at the refugee camp, attempting to communicate with a partner without using words.
The purpose of these exercises was twofold: to increase awareness of the refugees' plight, and to empower young people in their response to the refugee crisis and resettlement plan.
Posthumus was encouraged by the debriefing session at the end of the night, when the young people were asked how they could help a refugee transition into their community and school. They had a variety of ready responses.
Among their suggestions:
• Make them feel welcome and be sensitive to their situation (and refrain from questions about their past).
• Make them feel part of the community.
• Raise funds for families with no money.
• Treat them normally. Try to talk to them and extend an invitation to dinner.
• Offer help as they adapt to new experiences.
• Educate yourself in order to be able to respect culture and differences.
• Help them in their efforts to speak English better — and learn common phrases (such as “hello”) in their language.
• Help them feel safe.
• Help show them around.
Posthumus summarized the feedback as positive and impactful.
Some 37 dedicated volunteers from various churches and organizations put on the evening for young people who had come from Bailieboro, Baltimore, Camborne, Carrying Place, Castleton, Colborne, Garden Hill, Gore's Landing, Grafton, Hastings, Port Hope, Port Perry, Quinte West and Trenton in addition to Cobourg.
Posthumus offered thanks to the community partners, a list that includes Northumberland Child Development Centre, Northumberland Promise, Cornerstone Violence Prevention Centre, Cobourg Community Church (Salvation Army), Fellowship Baptist Church, Church on the Hill, Cobourg Alliance Church, Christ The Servant Church, St. John Ambulance, Canadian Tire and Dominos Pizza. He also thanked the staff of the Cobourg Community Centre.
“Even St. John Ambulance volunteer medics got involved in one of the modules and helped a 'refugee woman' deliver a baby in the 'refugee camp,'” he added.
“Due to the impact of Passages, we are very pleased to announce that other Youth Unlimited chapters across Ontario and Quebec have expressed interest in holding Passages events in their communities. We are also in the midst of discussions with a couple of local high schools who are enquiring about bringing Passages directly to their student body,” Posthumus announced.
“In our research and discussions with schools, young people and Youth Unlimited chapters from across Ontario and Quebec, no other communities are engaging their young people in the refugee crisis and resettlement plan in such an intentional manner.
“I believe that we have a unique opportunity to prepare and empower the youth of our county in a way that is sensitive, productive and meaningful.”