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The mental toll on young refugees

At a program run out of Cougar Creek Elementary School in Surrey, kids are sitting in classrooms drawing expressions on pages printed with blank faces, creating their own interpretations of happy, sad, excited and angry.

One child, about seven years old, draws an angry face completely red; his depiction of a happy face is a big grin showing rows of teeth.

In a class down the hallway, another group of children is doing a calming breathing exercise led by one of their peers. It’s a daily form of meditation and mindfulness that they learned earlier in the week.

This child and youth empowerment program, run by DIVERSEcity Settlement Services, is for kids aged six to 12. Many of them are entering their second year as refugees in Canada and are experiencing trauma related to the stress of adapting to a new culture.

Others have experienced or witnessed abuse.Counsellors with the program try to teach the children skills they can use when they’re feeling sad, angry or scared, said Corina Caroll, DIVERSEcity’s manager of counselling services. “And they can go, ‘Wait a minute, this isn’t an emotion that’s taking over,’” she said.

Later, the children begin colouring flowers printed on the back of small canvas bags. The bags will be transformed into comfort kits that will include things like scented oils, lip balm, candies, bubbles and stress balls that can calm them or bring them back to reality if they’re feeling intense emotions.

While there are plenty of arts- and play-based activities, the larger goal is to offer counselling.

DIVERSE city is unique among settlement services for its mental health programs and its team of registered clinical counsellors.

“The needs are so high,” said Caroll. “You’re almost hesitant to advertise what you do because the wait lists are so significant that you’re constantly managing the need.”

According to Immigrant Settlement Services of B.C., 61 per cent of government-assisted Syrian refugees are under the age of 18. Of those, 39 per cent are school age.

Many children that Caroll sees are dealing with multiple issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, and early intervention is important. Delay in treatment can cause difficulties with peer and family relationships, along with isolation, aggression and high-risk behaviours, she said.

“It’s crucial because you don’t want people living in distress for longer than they absolutely have to,” she said.

Parents might think their children were too young to have been affected by violence and conflict in the countries they fled, but children as young as two or three have a strong sense of what is happening around them, said Jessica Forster-Broomfield, manager of children’s programs at DIVERSEcity.

“They don’t have the vocabulary to be able to talk about it and express it,” she said, and may suffer from behavioural issues and outbursts. “They haven’t … been able to verbalize what it was that they saw.”

Almost all the families she sees are working through some form of PTSD, said Forster-Broomfield.

“With Syrian families, because the conflict is within the last few years, the conflict is very fresh. With some families, say they were born and raised in a refugee camp, they might be a bit removed from their country’s conflict but there’s still a lot of violence and stressors within the refugee camps as well.”

Truepayna Moo remembers arriving in Canada at the age of 10. She was born and raised in a United Nations-run refugee camp in northern Thailand after her family, which is ethnically Karen, fled civil war in Myanmar.

She describes her childhood as relatively stable. She played outside and ate three meals a day from allotted rations with her family. Still, the camp was fenced and she was aware of her family’s struggles in Myanmar.

“You always hear stories of war and the fear is close to you,” she says.

Before arriving in Vancouver with her parents, two younger brothers and two older sisters, she didn’t know much about Canada. “All we knew is there’s no war there and it’s going to be safe.”

Adjusting to life in a new country and culture was difficult and she remembers misunderstandings with teachers and encountering racism.

“I remember the first day of school, all I could understand was yes, no. I didn’t know ‘hi’ existed,” she said.

Moo has just graduated from Langley Secondary and plans to pursue post-secondary education in international development. She recently visited the refugee camp where she was born and speaks about her experiences at workshops for teachers and with youth.

Mental health struggles are common in her community but people aren’t always willing to talk about them, she said.

“There’s trauma from the war, it’s with you, it’s in your head,” she said. “It’s a nightmare there in the back of your head.”

Today, Moo is a youth advisory member with Fresh Voices, a Vancouver Foundation group of young immigrants and refugees who work together to try to make B.C. a welcoming place for young newcomers.

Golsa Golestaneh, 19, is a fellow member. She arrived in Canada in 2014 after leaving Iran as a refugee and living in Turkey for two years with her parents and older brother.

Golestaneh struggled with anxiety and depression in Turkey. She was the only Iranian girl her age in the area where she was living and felt isolated, missing her cousins and grandmother back home.

She managed to get counselling for anxiety and depression through the Immigrant Services of British Columbia after being put on a wait list for six months.

Although she has never been through war, she has experienced trauma. Her parents were on an execution list for political reasons and, fearing for their lives, were forced to leave their homeland.

“For us, it’s kind of like mental war,” Golestaneh said. “Here my life might be easier than it was in Turkey or Iran, but all that stuff is still with me … I’m the same person. I hear about it on the news and it kind of breaks me down every time I hear about it.”

She said she sees the impact of trauma on her family, who have lived through economic uncertainty and losing friends and family members to executions.

“We are still dealing with … something in our heads that just doesn’t let us be calm anymore.”

Mariana Martinez Vieyra, B.C.’s refugee mental health coordinator and a trauma counsellor at the non-profit Vancouver Association for Victims of Torture, has been focusing recently on training community counsellors and teachers on how to work with refugee children who may have experienced trauma.

Veiyra hopes to address gaps in services, which she says are an increasing concern she’s heard about from school counsellors, teachers and principals throughout the Lower Mainland.

“The access, that’s the key problem,” she said. “We are doing great in many ways and it’s great we are embracing people and welcoming refugees but we cannot send them out just to be in limbo.”

But she is quick to point out that although children who have come to Canada as refugees may have unique challenges, they are resilient.

“We shouldn’t say, ‘These poor refugee children, they have been through so much.’ Let’s not underestimate the resiliency of these kids.”

This article by Rosemary Newton was posted by the Vancouver Sun on April 16, 2017

Did you know?

10 years after arriving in Canada, immigrants still face poverty rates twice as high as Canadian-born people. It takes 20 years for the poverty rates of immigrants to equalize with the poverty rates of persons born in Canada.

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