Refugee and immigrant students living in the downtown Winnipeg area face numerous challenges when it comes to adjusting to life in Canada.
Abdikheir Ahmed, program coordinator of the Immigrant and Refugee
Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM), works with immigrant and refugee youth to help foster their development. However, he said there are persistent problems that impede their integration.
Ahmed felt that sometimes the mainstream media promotes stereotypes by blanket naming African youth.
“They use these very flashy headlines that depict newcomer kids as being from violent-prone backgrounds,” he said.
“[ . . . ] When you have that stereotype out there for you, then the challenges are quite enormous.”
Ahmed explained that one of his main concerns is what he feels is unfair treatment of young newcomers by police officers.
“Newcomer kids always look for social belonging in numbers and they walk in groups. [ . . . ] When a police car comes across a group of kids who have hoods and baggy jeans, they are often treated like people who are involved in making [drug] deals,” said Ahmed.
This can often lead kids to start believing in the image that others have of them, which can have deeply negative consequences, explained Ahmed.
“When you expose these kids to these things it’s really disheartening and pushes kids to the extremes,” he said.
Ahmed recognized that gangs are a dangerous problem for the youth living downtown, as kids start to look to gang members for protection, instead of from the police. For this reason, Ahmed said it is crucial to reduce instances of stereotyping by police in order to build a trusting relationship with the newcomers.
Supt. Dave Thorne of the Winnipeg Police Service recognized the importance of meaningful dialogue and explained that “one of the key pieces to resolving difference is to understand each other’s perspectives and to be empathetic towards others’ situations.”
“It may seem sometimes that we’re being too aggressive, or it appears that we’re using too much force, but there are reasons for doing what we do to try to stabilize the situation,” said Thorne.
In order to address these concerns, Ahmed has been meeting with members of the Winnipeg Police Service and other leaders in the community in hopes of narrowing the gap between the newcomer community and the police service.
Thorne, who plays a part in the discussions, said the perception that some newcomer youth have of police, based on their experience back home, can have a major impact on their reactions.
“A lot of times in some of the African countries the police are tied in with the military and they can be oppressive,” he said.
Ahmed said that one of the main concerns he has brought to the discussion groups is that he has been dissatisfied with the facets in which newcomers can report complaints regarding police conduct. He said that, in order for the situation downtown to improve, complaints from the newcomer community need to be taken seriously.
According to Throne, the discussions aim to foster a sense of trust, in order for newcomers to feel that their complaints will be heard.
“We need to offer them an ear so if they have a complaint [ . . . ] they have somebody they can trust to come to, and can be confident the answers will be appropriate and meaningful to them,” he said.
“We find that once the kids realize that police officers are normal people, [ . . . ] they just happen to be police officers, that tends to bring down some of the barriers that exist.”
Ahmed said in their most recent session, the group came up with goals
they wish to see accomplished within the next year, such as involving more uniformed police in community meetings and events.
For newcomers graduating from a high school in Winnipeg, the transition to university can also prove difficult. According to Ahmed, dropout rates are very high, especially in the first year of university. Newcomer students are often intimidated by the thought of university due to language barriers and access issues, which leads to lack of ambition, he said.
However, downtown organizations such as the Global Welcome Centre for Immigrants and Refugees, which is funded by the University of Winnipeg, are working to fight these trends through community outreach.
Miranda Santolini, coordinator of the centre, which was established in 2007, said their purpose is to help immigrants and refugees access post-secondary education.
The centre offers a six session program called “Bridge to University,” to ensure students are fully prepared to pursue their studies. Santolini said that the need for such a service is high in the downtown area. “If you add up each time we help someone in a month, you’re looking at about 800 times minimum,” she said.
The program involves visiting high schools in order to educate immigrant and refugee children about post-secondary education in Canada. The program focuses on helping kids understand the options they have in order to ensure they don’t miss out on key points.
Santolini recognized that when it comes to applying and choosing courses for university, the information can be overwhelming, especially for students to which English is an additional language. For this reason, it is most important for the students to understand the vocabulary that comes with the application process.
“That way, when they speak to an academic advisor, they have the ability to empower themselves so that [ . . . ] they understand the information they are being given and are able to make conscious choices,” she said.
“Even though our funding is through the University of Winnipeg, we’re here for the community,” she said.
Ahmed explained that the Bridge to University program offers that opportunity for young newcomers to “see university as a place that anybody can have access to.”
“I think all post-secondary education institutions should be able to do these kinds of things,” he added.
Santolini said the centre often receives visits from the Winnipeg Police Service in order to keep communication lines open.
Kirstie Peden, chair of the University of Manitoba chapter of World University Service Canada (WUSC), noted the importance of programs that bring refugee students into universities.
“The result is that not only are the refugee students receiving valuable educational assistance, they are also becoming familiarized with the university campus,” she said.