We have all seen the refugee crisis in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe in the news and on social media. We know that Canada plans on resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees by February 2016. This does not include the thousands of refugees that are already being processed through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

There are several groups and many citizens of Northumberland County who are committed to sponsoring refugee families in our community. Several questions naturally come up: Why do people flee their countries? When are they coming? Will they speak English? What was their home country like? What schools will their kids be going to? Where will they live? What will they look like? Act like? Live like?

On Jan. 22, 2016 Northumberland Youth Unlimited held Passages at the Cobourg Community Centre. Passages is a youth awareness event confronting the plight of refugees. During the event young people were split into family groups and experienced four role-playing modules developed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: Escape and Separation, Border Crossing, Temporary Shelter and Meeting the Local Population.  Each family group encountered challenges, from finding their family members in the midst of airplane bombings, to attempting to cross a border while being yelled at by border guards and filling out an immigration form in an unknown language, to having their shelter destroyed by a wind storm or a woman in their family having a baby at the refugee camp, to attempting to communicate with a partner without using words. The purpose of Passages was two-fold: 1) to increase awareness of the plight of refugees and 2) to empower young people in their response to the refugee crisis and resettlement plan.

The success of the event was evident in the debriefing session that was held at the end of the night. Following are some of the answers from How can you help a refugee transition into your community and school?: Make them feel welcome, be sensitive about their situation, not ask them about their past. To be understanding of where they come from and to help them to the best of our ability. Make them feel part of the community; raise funds for families with no money. To be helpful; treat them normally. Try to talk to them; invite them over for dinner. Help with adaptation to new experiences. Try to include them, respect culture and differences, educate yourself. Help them speak English better. Help them feel safe. Provide translators. Lend a hand, be patient. Help show them around. Learn common phrases such as “hello” in their language.

Thirty-seven dedicated volunteers from various churches, organizations and the community hosted 65 young people from Bailieboro, Baltimore, Brighton, Camborne, Carrying Place, Castletown, Cobourg, Colborne, Garden Hill, Gores’ Landing, Grafton, Hastings, Port Hope, Port Perry, Quinte West and Trenton.

We couldn’t have done it without our valuable partners: Northumberland Child Development Centre, Northumberland Promise, Cornerstone Violence Prevention Centre, Cobourg Community Church (Salvation Army), Fellowship Baptist Church, Church on the Hill, Cobourg Alliance Church, Christ The Servant Church, St. John Ambulance and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. And, our sponsors: Canadian Tire and Dominos Pizza. Special thanks go to the great staff of the Cobourg Community Centre!

Overall, Passages was a great success! The feedback we have received from volunteers and young people alike is very positive and impactful. Even St. John Ambulance volunteer medics got involved in one of the modules and helped a “refugee woman” deliver a baby in the “refugee camp”.

Due to the impact of Passages, we are very pleased to announce that other Youth Unlimited chapters across Ontario and Quebec have expressed interest in holding Passages events in their communities. We are also in the midst of discussions with a couple of local high schools who are enquiring about bringing Passages directly to their student body.

In our research and discussions with schools, young people and Youth Unlimited chapters from across Ontario and Quebec, no other communities are engaging their young people in the refugee crisis and resettlement plan in such an intentional manner. We have a unique opportunity to prepare and empower the youth of our county in a way that is sensitive, productive and meaningful.

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