OTTAWA — Hana Woldeyes says she can't fathom what pain Syrian refugees faced as they fled their country, but she's got an inkling of what the teenagers will go through as they try to settle into a new one.
The 17-year-old Vancouver high school student, who emigrated from Ethiopia in 2013, has been reaching out to young newcomers in her area after living through the bewildering experience herself.
Woldeyes was one of three Canadians to receive the "Everyday Political Citizen" award at a ceremony on Thursday in Toronto. Samara Canada, a charity that promotes civic engagement, set up the award to celebrate how ordinary Canadians — not just elected officials — engage with politics.
"It was hard at first because I had to overcome my fears and because I thought I would never see my mom and I'd never find friends, I'd never get to speak English properly," Woldeyes said of her move to Canada.
"I was scared to talk or approach people, because what if they asked me something? What am I going to respond back? It was so hard."
Woldeyes said proactively connecting with immigrant youth, rather than waiting for them to figure out available community services, helped her to survive her own period of integration.
Cory Nicotine of Edmonton began reaching out to fellow citizens after doing development work in Tanzania. He said he was curious about the Idle No More movement when he returned to Canada, and decided to set up a panel discussion to inform other people about the indigenous rights initiative too.
That led to other events, including one session on Edmonton's municipal election, featuring mayoral and ward candidates. He called the series "Knowledge is Powwow."
"Youth aren't engaged in politics because they don't know who's running or what they're running for...I felt like if they met [candidates] on a personal level, they'd be more willing to be engaged," Nicotine said.
"A handful of youth that attended were inspired and went out to vote on voting day."
A third award was given to Toronto engineer Luke Anderson, whose StopGap charity helps fund temporary ramps for businesses. Anderson began using a wheelchair in 2001 after a spinal cord injury.
"There's a lot of attention given to our elected officials and our institutions of government," said Jane Hilderman, Samara Canada's executive director.
"They get a lot of media coverage and their public service is often celebrated, but those that work behind the scenes and are enhancing democracy in their own way often go unthanked for their efforts, and yet where would be without them?"
Jennifer Ditchburn, The Canadian Press