The Fresh Voices Initiative

By: Diego Cardona

Human Rights , Activist

In what has become the world’s largest humanitarian crisis in close to 70 years, more than 4-million people have fled Syria and 6.6-million are displaced within their own country -- at least half are children.

Though hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been screened and approved for asylum — first by local authorities in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and then by the United Nations Refugee Agency — desperate refugees in the tens of thousands have also flooded European shores without going through proper channels.

Even for the most socially and economically stable countries, integrating refugees is a challenge. Hatred and fear percolate amidst the possibility that refugees and immigrants can’t mirror the character, values or attitudes toward freedom, pluralism and human rights. 

While the UN approved 23,000 Syrians to resettle in the USA, Canada committed to accepting close to 25,000. As of February 2016, close to 10,000 had already arrived. For Canada (and other host countries), experts point to the challenges confronting approved applicants

  • 67% arrive without a mastery of either English or French. As a result, there are long wait lists for language-training
  • 55% are 14-years of age or younger, mostly schooled in Arabic — and when compared to their peers, typically a year or two behind in their academics — which presents a challenge for the school system
  • 53% struggle to find appropriate housing, simply because there are 5-to-8 people in each family unit
  • work experience tends to be low-skilled and almost entirely limited to males. As a result, job opportunities may not reflect the skill-sets of the refugees.

As with every host country, there is a pressing need for Canada to live up to their humanitarian responsibilities.

Canada is not unique in its challenge to integrate refugees. Each country faces dilemmas centered around the lack of cultural sensitivity or empathy between cultures which often results in racism and prejudice.

As a refugee myself, I believe there is a clear and present need to improve integration stratagems worldwide. The average length of exile for refugees is 17-years

Although it is a massive transition for everyone, policy-makers need to be made aware that the brunt of the responsibility to comply with a nation’s integration demands almost always falls on the immigrant children. This means, more often than not, refugee children walk a tightrope between schools, banks, social assistance and immigration. They have to balance the lack of cultural sensitivity and knee-jerk reaction most host country nationals have in assuming that the skills they earned from their own mother country are not applicable.

Refugee children and youth are at particular risk for psychological and social problems. According to research, “The many challenges they experienced before leaving their home country, the stresses and problems they faced while fleeing and during their interim settlement and the many stresses and difficulties after migration during settlement in the destination country combine to place Syrian refugee children at serious risk.

Refugee children can not learn if they are not physically and emotionally safe. Teachers need training and ongoing support to help refugee and national children understand each other and get along. Globally, this is the number one request from teachers and refugees.

Children who do not feel safe in school can not learn. By not learning, they can not develop the skills needed to pursue a career or to properly interact with their peers. As a result, these children can quickly become marginalized.

The Fresh Voices Initiative was launched in 2011 — at a time when there more than 21-million refugees in the world, half of which had been displaced at the dawn of the new millennium. We have developed a scalable model to provide migrant youth with access to policy-makers. 

To date we have 25 youth workers serving 400 young immigrants. We seek the following outcomes:

  • engage refugees in the conversations that matter politically
  • provide cultural diversity analysis recommendations (do not define people by where they come from or what they look like)
  • work with teacher’s union to include the voices of migrant and refugee youth
  • ensure there is anti-racism training for all teachers
  • create a culture of empathy
  • Born in a small town near Pereira, Colombia, my family was subjected to the violence and chaos of the guerrilla forces. Without military or government forces to protect us, my father was kidnapped and executed for refusing to give up his land. Fearing for our lives, when I was just 9-years old my mother applied for, and received political asylum. We were granted immediate relocation to Canada. Through this experience, I have first hand knowledge of the painful process imposed on refugees by the host countries and the barriers that we have to overcome in order to integrate and adjust to the demands of our new lives.


Our Process

March 2, 2016

As of February 29, 2016, the Canadian government has managed to bring the 25,000 Syrian refugees into our country "at a cost of a little over $700 million."  The cost will be higher if we don't ensure a smooth transition for these people.

With that in mind, we have been calling on the B.C. Ministry of Education to facilitate a conversation between students and the government. Our main focus is to make sure that young people are included in policy changes at all levels of government -- which means we are about systemic change.

In 2013, we successfully 2,399 signatures for the "Make It Count" petition that we developed to ensure that students taking English Language Learning (ELL) courses could be given school credit for learning English -- the same way native English speakers get credit for learning a foreign language.  

"Make It Count" continues to be an important campaign for the Yough Adivsory Team at Fresh Voices. It was a key recommendation of our 2013 report. Still, we have many recommendations which need to be met:

  1. Allow English Language Learning (ELL) courses — also known as English as a Second Language (ESL) courses — to count towards high school graduation.
  2. Implement a special credit program for languages spoken at home (not otherwise taught in the regular school system).
  3. Increase opportunities for immigrant-facilitated dialogues in schools, and ensure participation from senior education, government and community leaders.
  4. Provide anti-oppression, anti-racism and cultural awareness training to teachers and other school staff who work with immigrant and refugee students and communities.
  5. Include more immigrants and refugees on the governing bodies of school districts, parent advisory committees, and student councils.
  6. Ensure ELL/ESL testing, assessment, placement and academic guidance is consistent across BC.
  7. Develop mentorship programs where older immigrant and refugee young adults support younger peers to overcome difficulties and navigate the system.
  8. Promote international spaces to talk about the impact that changes in roles and responsibilities have on traditional family values, dynamics and identities – particularly when youth seem to become the ‘head of the families’ or key caregivers.
  9. Provide support to young adults in families from newcomer backgrounds to advance their education and employment goals.
  10. Develop and provide specific program services for refugee youth, young girls and queer immigrants and refugees.
  11. Speed up family reunification efforts by enabling provincial staff to inform and influence federal immigration decision-making timelines.
  12. Create better pre-departure and post-arrival resources for immigrant and refugee youth.
  13. All children and youth in Canada should have access to essential services such as education and health care, as outlined in the Convention on Rights of the Child.
  14. Federal, provincial and municipal funding and practices should strengthen the ability of cultural groups to come together to support themselves, such as peer mentorship programs for youth.
  15. Federal, provincial and municipal funding should be allocated towards supporting conversations and spaces for diverse cultural groups among both self-identified cultural groups and other mixed groups.
  16. Government agencies and social service organizations must take more action to recruit, hire, train and promote people from immigrant and refugee background for key decision-making positions.

Stop Islamophobia!

Feb. 4, 2016

Though the majority of Canadians value compassion toward and acceptance of refugees, there have been some recent violence motivated by racism and Islamophobia. In the last few months, a mosque was set on fire in Peterborough, several incidents were reported of Muslim women being harassed in the Greater Toronto area. The video below does a fair job describing some of the challenges:

Debunking the Myths about Refugees

Feb. 3, 2016

  1. You can’t properly screen 25,000 people this quickly without making mistakes….According to who? Canada has one of the toughest, most comprehensive (and some would say exclusive) refugee screening systems around the world. Together with countries like Australia, and the United Kingdom who have implemented far-right approaches to refugee resettlement Canada uses high-tech security measures and health standards to screen refugees as if they were top level criminals which is in-turn very sad. So basically if we are not equipped for proper screening, tell me which country is? I mean if we were able to process thousands of Vietnamese refugees fleeing war in the 70’s and 80’s, why can’t we do the same today?
  2. Bringing in this many refugees undermines the safety of Canadians…say what?? Refugees are not terrorists, so what’s this whole deal about security? Plain and simple, there is no proven link that a refugee has ever been a terrorist. Refugees are the victims of war, terrorism, and civil war. They are the people who were displaced, the women who were rape, and the children who were left without parents. So can we please stop equating refugees with criminals, when have you ever heard of a criminal escaping war, and living in a refugee camp hoping that one day they would be re-settle to another country to start a new life? I certainly haven’t. No to mention that most re-settle Syrian refugees will be children and youth.
  3. Canada cannot afford to pay for this many people to come at once….think twice!!  Big myth, those of us who came to Canada as government assisted refugees (GARs) (as will all 25,000 Syrians) know that there is no such thing as a free ride. GARs must pay back many fees with interest rates, including costs associated with transportation and health screenings depending on the necessary procedures. They must begin paying these items within a year after their initial arrival. What Canadians might not know, is that must re-settle refugees find employment within a year and opt-out of social assistance mechanisms, and the actual payment rate on transportation loans is of 95%. This is not to say folks such as myself aren’t grateful for Canada’s generosity (I am so grateful) but we want the facts to be clear.
  4. Canada already takes in too many Refugees…actually we don’t Canada receives about 10,000 government assisted refugees per year, that is actually less than the number of refugees we use to welcome in the 80’s or 90’s. That is 1/60 of one percent of the total world-wide refugee population (60 million approximately). That is less than a tenth of 1% of Canada’s total population. Western Countries such as Germany and the US continuously receive by far more refugee claimants than us. Currently Germany has said they would welcome 800,000 Syrian refugees, and France has set their goal at 30,000. And finally most refugees are from and remain in the global south, if not ask  Lebanon, as we speak their government is doing what they can to support 1.14million Syrian Refugees. So I think is safe to say that a country as rich as ours can probably take in 25,000, and can probably welcome even more.

Want to learn more? Also follow my blog!

From Refugee to Community Organizer

June 18, 2012

The Globe and Mail profiled 10 people under the age of 20 and included me in this piece!

The Vancouver Foundation wrote a great piece about me in their article about the Youth Philanthropy Council.

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