Summer Camp Gives Syrian Child Refugees A Crash Course on Canada

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TORONTO — It's a familiar chant belted out at summer camps across the continent, but the call-and-response uttered at one Toronto day camp on a sticky July day is hesitant, even shy.

"I don't know what you've been told!" an eager counsellor bellows in sing-song fashion at a group of young Syrian refugees.

"Happi Campers cheers the most," her wary charges mumble back in broken English.

It takes a moment for the middle-schoolers to grasp this peculiar game, but three tries later, they gel into a more-or-less unified chorus.

"Five! Six! Seven! Eight! Weeeeeeee're great!" they holler, letting loose with exuberant cheers.

The fun and games at this day camp are more than just a rite of passage for these new Canadians, they're a key step in easing their transition into a strange country with unfamiliar customs.

happi summer camp

H.appi Camper founder Mazen El-Baba says he tried to design a getaway that would offer the staples of any typical North American summer camp: drama, arts and crafts, and sports.

But it would also offer much-needed lessons tailored to the specific needs of young Syrian refugees: intensive literacy classes, a crash course in Canadian cultural norms, and self-esteem exercises.

happi summer camp

That last goal is possibly the most challenging, given the fact that most of these war-weary children — 75 in all, ranging in age from five to 15 — have been through horrific traumas.

El-Baba says it's hard to know exactly how these kids are suffering because they have not been formally diagnosed with behavioural or mental-health issues. But they clearly bear the scars.

happi summer camp

When confronted with something they've done wrong, it's not uncommon to hear a frustrated camper say, "I should go kill myself" or "I should go stab myself or shoot myself," says El-Baba.

"I'm not sure if they actually understand it because you're hearing that from an eight-year-old, you're hearing that from a nine-year-old," he adds.

"An eight-year-old and nine-year-old saying that, 'I want to stab myself,' it's really hard to hear that. It's like, 'Wow, OK, let's talk more about it.' That's some of the things we see."

Activities were designed with the help of mental-health professionals, family doctors, social workers and crisis-intervention professionals. Every week, each counsellor meets with three mental-health experts to discuss behavioural problems they've observed.

But this is not a counselling camp, stresses El-Baba. The biggest goal is to let these kids be kids, and have the opportunity to let loose and have fun.

happi summer camp

Soft-spoken 11-year-old Hanin Jaamour says she's learning a lot, and that's easing some of her anxiety about attending school in the fall.

She and her family landed in Toronto in February, and she went to school for three months. But she didn't like it at all.

"Everything is different," she says in Arabic, with El-Baba translating.

She's excited about entering Grade 6, but she's also scared.

"This year it's going to be harder for English because we're going to be learning more things," she frets.

"Here it's a very diverse culture, you have many people coming from various different countries and backgrounds and religions. Back home we don't have the mixing of boys and girls and this is completely new, which is amazing."

Camp supervisor Windemere Jarvis, the only counsellor who doesn't speak Arabic, says she's impressed by how eager the kids are to learn new customs.

They've opened their hearts and bared their souls everyday, she says, pointing to painful anecdotes about bombings, destroyed homes, and grief that can send her home "crying all night."

"I was talking to a friend of mine and they said, 'You know what, I think the most important thing is when you hear these stories is not to cry because that is their reality. Just let them talk and let them know that what happened to them was OK and that they're here now and we want them to be super happy here and feel like this is safe,'" says Jarvis.

The athletic 21-year-old has taken a keen interest in boosting self-esteem among the girls, noting that a clear gender bias towards the boys "is very visible."

happi summer camp

"The other day we lined them up and immediately all the boys went to the front of the line and the girls went behind them," she notes.

She worries about how the boys might be disciplined for such behaviour at a Toronto school unfamiliar with Syrian culture.

"It's not their fault," she says, envisioning repeated trips to the principal's office for something they don't understand.

Jarvis says she tries to introduce new ideas by showing them girls can do anything and by recognizing and praising female achievements.

"I think that's something they're a little hesitant toward but the're not resistant," she says.

"And I think that they definitely — the girls especially — want to be empowered and they want to change. Because (after) coming here (to Canada), that's what's going to happen to them."

happi summer camp

It hasn't been easy. Teaching even basic classroom etiquette has been a challenge, admits El-Baba.

Kids at this camp will simply slip out of the room if they need to use the bathroom. Or they'll try to open the emergency exit while the school bus is moving.

"It's not like they don't want to obey the rules, it's because they just don't quite understand it," says El-Baba.

"They haven't had that same structure back home and now this is all new to them where they're organized into groups and they have to follow a certain schedule, they have to go to the washroom at a certain time."

At H.appi Camp, there are classes on leadership, and how to speak confidently in a group. There are discussions about diversity and human rights, the environment, and volunteerism.

Other courses focus on how to resolve conflict, how to work in a team, and how to build friendships and trust.

Admission is free but the waiting list is 200-kids long.

happi summer camp

El-Baba says the month-long program is largely funded through a $36,000 federal grant. Private donations help pay for buses and transportation, a couple of food banks have supplied drinks and snacks, and Canadian Tire has donated sporting equipment.

But art supplies dwindled after just the first week, and El-Baba says they're running out of cash.

He hopes to generate more money to fund a followup program once school starts. That project would see counsellors visit each family weekly to check up on how the kids are faring academically, socially, and psychologically.

El-Baba is optimistic about their futures.

"I was shocked and amazed by how resilient they are," he says, rattling off the stories he's heard that end with death or violence.

"Hopefully by the end of this month they'll have an idea there's other things in the world that they still haven't learnt or experienced that are good."

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