Summer camp for refugee families

Syrian refugee kids enjoying the GNAG summer camp with
teacher Rafael Flores

By Heather Moncur

Summer camp is a time for adventure, fun and making new friends. However, the high cost, language barrier, and logistics can put summer camp out of reach for many new Canadians.

Yet, thanks to the work of the Ottawa Centre Refugee Action (OCRA) group and the Glebe Neighbourhood Activities Group (GNAG), 12 refugee families had the opportunity to participate in a summer camp designed with new immigrants in mind.

Teacher Ayda Alnoofoori, a Syrian refugee herself, teaches children at a blackboard.

It started in the spring, when OCRA co-chair Angela Keller-Herzog realized that much of the programming designed to support refugee families would shut down in the summer. Kids would be home from school and vocational training for fathers would break for the summer holiday season. Keller-Herzog approached Mary Tsai, executive director of GNAG, with the idea of a summer camp specifically designed with refugees in mind. What better way to improve language skills, learn about culture and help with socialization? From those initial discussions, a five-week camp was born.

Children attending the GNAG refugee family summer camp, with teacher Ash Abraham Coutu

The camp went beyond the standard fun-and-games format by providing daily ESL lessons for both parents, and traditional playgroup activities for children. The camp also featured weekly outings designed to support participants in their daily lives, with lessons in grocery shopping, banking, cooking and health. These simple tasks can seem overwhelming for those that have lived for years in refugee camps and arrive in Canada alone. The camp was more than just a learning opportunity for non-sponsored families who have little to no social network. It provided an opportunity to make new friends with others who are facing similar struggles as they adjust to life in a new country. One participant was overcome with emotion, noting that she had never learned to read Arabic, but now, thanks to these classes, she was learning to read in her new language and beginning to recognize English letters and small words. Another mentioned that she had arrived almost five months ago, and that this was her first outing. All participants felt truly blessed for the opportunity to start a new life in a safe and welcoming country.

But the benefits were not limited to new Canadians. Teachers, camp counselors and all of those involved in the program welcomed the opportunity to see the city and our country through new eyes. Learning more about the refugee experience and the difficult road many have travelled to get here gave the program organizers an increased appreciation for many of the simple things we take for granted: personal safety, clean water and education.

The camp was run as a pilot program and was featured on CBC radio and television. It had to turn away a number of interested families due to limited space. Tsai noted the strong need for this type of programming and hopes to meet with other community centres and refugee support agencies to share her experience, and discuss best practices.

Heather Moncur is communications co-lead with Ottawa Centre Refugee Action (OCRA).

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