Refugee Youth Programming and Pre-Arrival Services: A Site visit to Turkey

20 Jun Refugee Youth Programming and Pre-Arrival Services: A Site visit to Turkey

In January 2017, COA Refugee Youth Program team members from across Canada convened for a field mission to Istanbul, Turkey. The team unveiled new activities and a new referral system as a part of the Refugee Youth Program.  The visiting group gained many valuable first-hand insights and experience, while interacting with and learning from Syrian and Iraqi refugee youth face-to-face.
The COA Refugee Youth Program is implemented in partnership with 5 YMCAs across the country: YMCA of Greater Toronto, YMCA of Greater Vancouver, YMCA of the National Capital Region in Ottawa, YMCA of Greater Halifax and YMCA of Winnipeg. The program offers pre-arrival online individualized information and referrals to refugee youth preparing for resettlement in Canada.
shaheera rahin

Shaheera Rahin

COA Youth Programming Assistant
ornella atangana

Ornella Atangana

YMCA Youth Advisor

A blend of nerves and excitement had come over the team as our plane touched down in Istanbul. The COA Refugee Youth Program team from Canada was at the start of a five-day visit to a Canadian Orientation Abroad refugee training site in Turkey.

As a group of YMCA staff from Canada, we were unaware of the full extent of new perspectives we would soon gain through interacting with adult and youth refugees in Turkey. “What do you know about Canada?”, “What do you want to know about Canada?” and “What are your concerns and fears about resettling in Canada?” asked one of the COA facilitators on the first day of the training session in Istanbul. These three questions set the COA training session into full swing.

Split into two separate rooms were a mix of Iraqi and Syrian refugees who had arrived in Istanbul from different satellite cities around Turkey, just the previous night or in the early morning before sessions started. They were in Istanbul to attend a fifteen-hour session – which would end with a bus ride taking them and all of their worldly possessions to Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport on the final leg of their journey to Canada.

Participants’ answers highlighted their varied levels of formal education and knowledge of Canada. Participants shared what they knew of Canada’s vast geography, its two official languages, its capital city, its peacefulness, its extreme temperatures, and more, until discussion topics moved on to refugee rights and freedoms in their new home.

Although their bags were already packed, discussions moved to what needed to be in their carry-on luggage and in their checked suitcases, luggage allowances, and later to details on the participants’ upcoming plane journey from Turkey to Canada. Some participants with over-packed bags had to make difficult decisions about what to leave behind from their already few possessions.

As the session moved on to the services available to them in Canada, we witnessed a high degree of engagement from participants, as many shared their anxiety about flying for the first time, their concerns about leaving relatives behind, the fear about resettling so far from their home countries, their concerns about learning a new language and finding employment. Many asked about medical care and schooling for their children. Adults and youth attended the same sessions, but are normally split at the end of each day to focus on youth-specific topics for an hour or two. Though the youth were a little less vocal during the combined adult-youth session, they nonetheless were engaged in all group activities.

COA staff, YMCA Youth Advisors, and refugee youth at the end of the youth session in Istanbul, Turkey.
COA staff, YMCA Youth Advisors, and refugee youth at the end of the youth session in Istanbul, Turkey.

The next day, as there were four youth advisors and the COA Youth Programming Assistant in town, we gathered in a small room with eight youth aged 10 to 21 to facilitate a youth-specific session covering topics such as Canadian education pathways, bullying and cultural adaptation. Since our COA Refugee Youth Program team from Canada possesses first-hand experience of displacement and migration, we shared our own stories, mirroring the journey they would soon also undertake. Ice-breakers and team-building activities were used unsparingly throughout the session to encourage interaction and engagement. The feedback provided by the youth was overwhelmingly positive, being that they expressed a sense of optimism and lessened fears regarding their imminent move to Canada.

“After having had this amazing opportunity to come to Turkey and see what COA does, I could say that pre-arrival services play a huge role in making Canada extend a welcoming hand before people set foot in their new country – and that the pre-arrival services are essential for a good start.” 

– Youth Advisor from Canada

As the sessions ended, our team accompanied the families on their flights to Canada. While our flight signified a return home for ourselves, it signaled the start of a new life for the COA participants. As the plane landed at the Toronto Pearson International Airport, we were ushered to the “Welcome to Canada Office” where the families were provided with further guidance and resources. When asked “How are you feeling?”, one of the young COA participants remarked: “I feel very happy because as soon as we landed in Canada, I see that everyone is smiling at us, even the immigration officers.” It was a humbling experience to be able to accompany families during such a profound moment of change in their lives.
The COA Refugee Youth Program in Canada is part of a continuum of the in-person orientation sessions provided overseas. This site visit in Turkey provided us with invaluable insights, including a better understanding of the Canadian session content provided overseas, in-person discussions with youth in determining the best means of connecting with them while still at the pre-arrival stage, and a better outlook of common questions and fears to address and follow-up with youth through our online pre-arrival services.

“I am incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity and am taking away learning that will continue to have a lasting positive impact on the work that I do for the Refugee Youth Program and the quality of services I am able to provide to our clients.”

– Youth Advisor from Canada.

“Thank you for everything. You are my first friends in Canada!”

– Saaed, Youth Participant.

In the last project year 2016-17, the COA Refugee Youth Program has been able to pilot the program in a few COA refugee training sites overseas. In the next project period, from April 2017 to March 2018, the team will be expanding its services and outreach to all refugee training sites globally.