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Two boys hold a shovel full of snow in front of his parents and siblings.
A Syrian-Canadian family poses outside their home in Peterborough, Ont., in December 2021. They were among thousands of Syrian refugees resettled in Canada by April 2017 under a program introduced by the Liberal government in 2015 — and now thousands of Afghan refugees are arriving in Canada, many of them under the age of 18. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Thornhill

How Canada should be preparing to help young Afghan refugees

The government of Canada has committed to bringing 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada. To date, almost 6,500 have arrived since August 2021.

With the arrival of such a large cohort of refugees, there’s been more attention paid to the services that exist for them in communities across the country.

This of course is not the first time Canada has welcomed a large number of refugees. Between 2015 and 2018, for example, 58,650 Syrian refugees were resettled across the country.

Three young girls, on a toddler, smile as their father sits behind them on a leather couch.
A Syrian refugee watches as his three daughters smile for a photo at their home in Mississauga, Ont., in December 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Similar to the situation with Syrian refugees, Canada is anticipating more young refugees in the coming months. According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), more than half of all refugees who arrive in Canada are under the age of 18. These young people are a unique part of the newcomer population, and understanding their needs can help communities become more effective in supporting them.

How to support children and youth

Young refugees from Syria sparked my research in this area. Through my PhD research at Dalhousie University, I wanted to better understand how Canada was prepared to receive and support refugee children and youth coming from countries devastated by war and armed conflict.

I focused on Halifax, N.S., as a case study to show how smaller urban centres supported the integration of young refugees.

A diagram features various services for young refugees.
A diagram showing services prepared for young refugees in the Halifax area. (Author), Author provided

I compiled a complete list of organizations that participated in helping to settle young refugees. I developed it by looking at the different types of needs they’d have (for example, physical, mental, emotional or spiritual needs, and those involving social connections in the community, as well as their education).

The application of resilience theory in this research was very important. Resilience theory argues that resilience doesn’t just describe a personality trait. It’s a combination of personal and social resources that interact to have a positive impact on someone’s well-being.

The notion that resilience is a quality someone possesses — rather than something facilitated by families, schools, communities and governments — oversimplifies the challenges of young people who have faced serious adversity. So we can think about services available to young refugees as resilience “resources,” located in different parts of the young person’s environment, and how those resources can be strengthened to better support their well-being.

This is where there’s potential for service providers. The services provided to young refugees contribute to the resilience resources in their environments, affecting their well-being. That means the ability of service providers to offer support to young refugees helps them engage with those resources, which in turn builds resilience.

Policy-makers and services providers should therefore regard resettlement and integration support as a way to make resilience resources available to young refugees that could ultimately ensure positive outcomes.

Women in long dresses and head scarves board a bus on an airport tarmac.
Refugees from Afghanistan board a bus at Pearson Airport in Toronto in August 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Working together

In my book Finding Safe Harbour, to be published on Feb. 15, 2022, I present some important findings from my research on how communities in Canada should work together to support the long-term integration of young refugees.

Effective integration requires support for newcomers, and specifically refugees, to exist not just via settlement service organizations but across public services and sectors throughout communities.

When my research was completed, I worked with a group of young people who had come to Halifax as refugees to run a public youth forum. Halifax residents were invited to come and learn about what these young refugees had experienced, both when they left their birthplaces and when they settled in the city.

The young people who helped run the event spoke about how the opportunity to be heard had made a huge impact on them and made them feel like valuable members of the community.

A mural features people's insights on a refugee forum
Youth and adult participants shared what they learned at the 2019 Halifax forum in this mural. (Author), Author provided

This is an important reminder of the importance of meaningfully engaging with young refugees in the development of policy, the creation of services and the delivery of those services. Their voices and input are integral to how communities respond to them and support them.

Halifax and many other cities across the country have the capacity to provide better integration support for young refugees as they arrive in Canada. With Canadian cities of all sizes becoming more diverse, local institutions need to actively promote integration and prevent the exclusion of newcomers.

With more cultural awareness and intentional collaboration, the community at large can be an effective resource for bolstering the resilience of these young people.

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