Pull up any teens’ Facebook or MySpace page or follow one on Twitter, and you’ll find a wide range of chatter. They talk about relationships, school, friend, sports, drugs, sex—and all the other challenges that come with growing up. Teens today carry some heavy baggage as they find their way into adulthood.
Imagine being a youth who carries the extra weight of being a refugee in a new country. On top of normal teen angst, they live with the knowledge that the home they once knew may no longer exist, that some of their loved ones are still living in precarious conditions, have disappeared or were killed as a result of violence, and that their time spent fleeing or living in refugee camps form the bulk of their childhood memories.
Once in Canada, these young people face challenges of a different kind. How do they overcome language barriers and learn typical classroom practices? How do they learn to trust police, teachers and community leaders? In short, what does it take for refugee youths, new to Canada, to successfully settle in to their new lives?
Suzie Bisson is working to find out. A PhD candidate in the Faculty of Education’s educational psychology program, she began a research project last summer to determine what communities, schools and refugee families themselves can do to help refugee youths adapt and succeed in their new home country.
"If we can identify what facilitates refugee youths’ adaptation process, we not only help our refugee population but we also contribute to the long-term well-being of our society," Bisson explains.
Currently, Bisson is working with three students. Martin Ziza, from Iraq, and Apiako Zulaika, from Uganda, are both 18; Miguel Albarracin, who originally comes from Colombia, is 17. While they’ve only been taking part in Bisson’s project for a few months, they’ve already made huge strides in becoming active in their schools and communities.
"I have many friends who just arrived in Canada and I want to help them and help other refugees by finding the best ways to adapt here in Canada," says Ziza. Adds Zulaika: "I want to help people understand the needs of refugees, and I want to help the immigrants to see the higher opportunities in terms of education and jobs."
While their experiences vary, the goals they have for themselves and for their families are very similar. They all want to succeed and to live in peace.
"Sometimes they share their worry about insecurities that are taking place in their country of origin, where many of their loved ones still reside," says Bisson. "When that happens, they understand and support each other."
Bisson meets regularly with the students on the University of Calgary campus. "So many of them know little about post-secondary education and I think if we meet here, they’ll begin to feel more comfortable about not just high school, but the possibility of a university education."
In early November, all three students travelled with Bisson to Banff, where they presented their impressions of the project to the annual English as a Second Language Council conference.
"I hope that our findings created an insightful understanding of some of the obstacles faced by newcomers so that teachers and others see what immigrants have to do to overcome these obstacles," says Albarracin.
Refugee youths can join the project by contacting Bisson at 403-612-5958 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.