09 Feb Developing Successful Orientation Sessions for Refugee Youth

Over the past five years, COA has strived to develop pre-departure orientation materials and activities tackling the needs of refugee youth. Now that COA has a curriculum and a compendium of activities specifically dedicated to refugee youth, facilitators can plan youth-specific orientation sessions and tap into a variety of individual and group activities depending on the youth profiles, needs and information gaps.

Joel Gibson

COA Facilitator

Recently, I had the chance to conduct a focus group discussion with refugee youth through the Chin Women’s Organization School based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. While discussing information needs, fears, and topics of interest with the group comprised of 22 youth aged between 15 and 16 year old, I was able to identify 15 priority topics. These included: dress codes and norms; school and education; making friends; bullying; employment; cultural adaptation; family roles; law ( specifically with regards to youth); transportation; health; recreational activities; communication; dating and; choices and decision-making.

To further prepare for the first COA youth orientation session and choices in methodology, a meeting was arranged with an IOM colleague working with the Australian Cultural Orientation (AUSCO) program. The best practices and lessons learned proved invaluable in adapting the COA Youth Curriculum and activities to the cultural specificities of Chin (i.e., Burmese) and other ethnic refugee youth in Malaysia.

As a middle school teacher in Canada, I was confident in delivering COA to youth, and could observe similarities between the refugee youth attending the COA session and Canadian-born youth I had taught in the past. No matter their cultural background, youth are often suspicious of adults until a rapport is established. The creation of a positive rapport is the single most important element in conducting a successful youth orientation session. Having only one day or two to connect with each participant can be an added challenge, especially when communicating through interpreters.

COA Malaysia Facilitator, Joel Gibson, during a focus group held at the Chin Women’s Organization School.

Trust is built through games and group activities as pictured above.

In COA Malaysia, refugee youth work on a KWL (Know, Want to Learn) T-chart.

In my experience, advanced session planning makes a huge difference. For instance, scheduling the delivery of a combined adult/youth COA session prior to the youth-only session can prove useful in deepening the connections with youth. With the youth session delivered right after the combined adult/youth session has ended, youth already know the facilitator, his training style, and have developed a rapport with other youths.  Thus, they feel more confident, and can more readily open up about a wealth of youth topics.  

To further build trust with youth participants, the day typically starts with a few funny, yet effective, trust-building games and exercises. Having interpreters join in the activities and games also helps to ensure a successful and cohesive session where everyone participates equally, in a safe environment where  everyone can share laughter, express their needs and freely discuss their concerns. 

Including youth participants in the decision-making process; that is, letting them decide the topics they wish to know more about and discuss, also contributes to their personal engagement right from the start. Following a recent COA youth refugee session delivered in Malaysia, a few youth were interviewed about their session experience. The answers gathered through this exercise shed some light on Malaysia-based refugees’ perceptions and experiences and helped me tailor the content of the  five-hour youth syllabus.

COA facilitators strive to respect each participant’s pace, cultural background, and are conscious of the inherent need to adapt to different group dynamics. Each COA Malaysia youth group is distinct. At times, they are comprised of a mix of nationalities (Burmese, Pakistani, Iraqi, Iranian, etc.). This can either be seen as a challenge or as an opportunity to showcase multiculturalism in action. In the end, the facilitator’s level of energy will be the single and most important factor in delivering a good session. If the facilitator has fun leading the youth-only session, it will go viral and the participants will not only learn a great deal, but have fun too.