Interview with a COA Refugee Facilitator: Farah Barakat

27 Feb Interview with a COA Refugee Facilitator: Farah Barakat

Farah Barakat, a refugee and immigrant facilitator with COA Lebanon, puts relating with her participants first in during orientation sessions. COA connected with Farah in Beirut, where she discusses the value of humour, puts on the hat of a motivational speaker, and tells us about heart-to-hearts she had with former COA participants from their new homes in Toronto, Montreal, and Calgary.

Farah Barakat

COA Facilitator

How did you become a facilitator with the Canadian Orientation Abroad (COA) Program? How long have you been a facilitator with COA?

During a youth program I participated in back in 2015, one of the graduation requirements was to complete 80 hours of service in a humanitarian organization. I applied to one of the on-call opportunities at IOM, as an outreach officer working with family reunification cases (under the Dutch CO-NAREIS project). At that time, COA was in the process of recruiting additional staff. I saw the announcement and applied. I was hired as an administrative support staff and back-up facilitator. I just loved interacting with participants, and in less than one year, I became a full-time refugee facilitator.

How do you engage the participants during the sessions? How is your facilitation style different from other facilitators?

Each facilitator has his/her own style. It all depends on one’s personality, life experiences, cumulative knowledge and social skills. For me, being a dynamic individual, I like my COA session room to be full of positive energy. Recalling how it was for me as a student, I remember how I preferred teachers who kept me focused. I admired those with an engaging teaching style. I liked those teachers who interacted with their students, created a dialogue, and gave credit to students who participated. This is exactly what I do with participants in my COA sessions. Sharing some aspects of my Canadian knowledge and experience with them also plays a big role in keeping them engaged, as does listening to their personal stories and the experiences they share. I challenge them and open a space for appropriate debate of relevant topics between 2 differing views. People usually pay more attention during debates and they join the discussion, share their opinions and take a position. Moreover, I believe that humour is the best way to keep people connected…people love to laugh!  It is something our Middle Eastern participants enjoy and it creates a great spirit in the session room.

What does it entail to be a facilitator and provide pre-arrival orientation to newcomers?

First, to be a facilitator is to be a people-oriented person. Participants need a platform where they can express themselves freely without worrying they will be rejected. They simply need respect. I make my participants feel important. I put myself in their shoes and imagine myself on the journey with them. To keep up with our participants from all walks of life and levels of education, one needs to be knowledgeable about all aspects of life in Canada, and about their resettlement in Canada. Our job is not a specialization we learn at university or a course we take in an institute. It is a noble job and our role requires a fair amount of experience, as many of the questions addressed during a session demand readiness to give a clear answer. We are working with people with vast, often very tragic, and complicated life experiences.  They have knowledge and cumulative experience and one needs to be capable of managing a session room full of diversity.  Facilitators must remain approachable, open-minded, and respectful of everyone’s opinions.  As a COA facilitator, I treat every group as one of a kind and always remind myself to live in the moment, as there are never two groups with the same group dynamics.

Who are the participants that you serve in COA Lebanon? Are you still in touch with your previous participants?

At COA Lebanon, we serve adult and youth refugees as well as immigrants. I am responsible for delivering the refugee curriculum to both adults and youth refugees. Our participants are mostly Syrian and Iraqi refugees residing in Lebanon and waiting to be resettled in Canada. Life in Lebanon is not easy; it is demanding and expensive compared to other countries in the region. Our beneficiaries are tired and they need someone who will bring back hope to their life. I rarely recall a group leaving without asking for a phone number, an email address or a Facebook link so they can stay in touch. I myself also need to stay in contact and to follow up on their settlement, integration, and learn more about their challenges and successes. I am grateful because I have learned so much from former participants who find success in Canada. Most recently, I came back from a trip to Canada in which I visited Toronto, Montreal and Calgary, and met more than 7 former participants. They shared their stories with me. It was like I put on a pair of eyeglasses and saw everything more clearly through their eyes. It really matters that we keep in contact so we can continue to improve our work.  Being a COA facilitator is not necessarily a job that ends once we have distributed our COA certificates of completion.

What do you find the most challenging in being a COA facilitator? What do you find the most rewarding?

The most challenging part is it is hard to manage participants’ expectations.  Many want to become self-reliant as fast as possible.  People tend to worry when it comes to work and affording the day-to-day cost of living in Canada. It is always a sensitive topic, especially for those who do not speak a word of English/French, and when we have doctors, engineers, and lawyers in the session room.  I like to be realistic, but with a touch of positivity. Sometimes I feel like I wear the hat of a TED motivational speaker! It is also challenging to manage a group with many diverse backgrounds in terms of nationality, religion, age and level of education. But this diversity can be turned into success when the facilitator is able to find a common ground that keeps all these people connected and in harmony.

I love my job and I count my blessings. When I see the appreciation of a group of people that considers me to be a part of their journey, I always feel fortunate for playing a role in their new lives. It is so rewarding to make such a difference in one’s life and to leave a positive impact on them. COA stresses the importance of volunteering and giving to others in need in Canada. It is always a rewarding moment when a participant says that although the concept of volunteering may be foreign, they do wish to be part of this giving back to Canada as soon as they can.