The power of community – Language support for displaced Ukrainian children

When then-Simon Fraser University (SFU) student Saba Fatemi and her peers won the 2019 SFU Student Community Engagement Competition with their “CommuniCreate” initiative – a program for refugee and newcomer children pre-pandemic – she didn’t specifically have Ukrainian children in mind.

“My university peers and I learned that newcomer youth were a growing demographic in British Columbia [facing] unique challenges with language barriers, trauma, and a lack of community connections,” Fatemi recalls. “We entered the SFU Student-Community Engagement Competition with the idea for a program where immigrants and refugee youth could get involved with their communities, feel a sense of belonging, and improve their English through a fun and engaging youth-centered curriculum and we were lucky enough to be one of the winners of this competition, which started a great journey and adventure for all of us.”

What began as a student-led idea with a single community partner has grown into a multi-organization joint effort to support and integrate the children of the families displaced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine who have found refuge in the Lower Mainland.

Building Community

Through the 8-week program, newcomer children from Ukraine in grades 4-7 gather to learn English and build community with one another and volunteer mentors from the SFU Community.

The English Language Support program is organized by the SFU Surrey – TD Community Engagement Centre in partnership with DIVERSEcity Community Resources Society, Surrey Libraries, and United Way British Columbia.

“Partnerships are extremely important for us at the SFU Surrey – TD Community Engagement Centre,” explains Rachel Nelson, the Centre’s Associate Director of Partnerships and Programs. “It’s just an essential part of our process. We just really believe in the power of bringing together our collective resources and capacity to make a difference.”

As a result of the 2020 pandemic restrictions, the “CommuniCreate” program was delivered online until its current, in-person iteration was conceived in response to United Way British Columbia’s “United for Ukraine” call for proposals. Now it can be delivered in-person. United Way’s “United for Ukraine” initiative was created to assist the integration of displaced Ukrainian people into local communities with a special focus on programs offering connection, fun, and support for young Ukrainians adjusting to a new language and culture.

Connections in a safe environment

With experience in providing educational support to school-aged children, and community partnerships, the SFU Surrey – TD Community Engagement Centre was able to respond to the call.

Saba Fatemi, program manager, civic and community engagement. | Photo courtesy of SFU

“We approached one of our past CommuniCreate program supervisors to lead this program; as well, she’s an SFU student,” explains Fatemi, who is now a Program Manager at the Centre. “Together, we [asked ourselves] ‘What’s the real focus of this program?’ We decided that relationships, connections were our priority number one and creating a safe environment would be our main priority for this program. So, we focused on creating an enjoyable experience for the children where they could express themselves, be creative, gain confidence, and feel heard.”

The program’s first session ran from May 9 to June 27, serving 13 children at the City Centre branch, and was by all accounts a success.

“It’s been really positive!” says Nelson. “The kids seem to be enjoying the program and opening up as they go along. We have a volunteer survey that gets filled out each week to debrief what happened in each session. You can see from the responses that the participants are building relationships with each other, with the volunteers, they’re having fun. A lot of the curriculum is almost play-based: lots of games and interactive activities. They’re having fun and learning new things at the same time.”

“[Our kids] like these meetings a lot and are passionately waiting for every next one,” a family member of a participant said of the programs. “They have got new friends thanks to this language program.”

The registrations for the next session – which will run from Oct. 21 to Dec. 9, 2023 – are currently open.

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