Juwaher Yusuf is a noted activist and operations manager with one of Toronto's leading grassroots organizations, The Eritrean Youth Collective. EYC is an ambitious youth led organization that is having such a profound impact in Toronto's diverse (Eritrean) Canadian communities. Yusuf reflects on the history and the future of the great Toronto organization.
Tell me about the Eritrean Youth Collective
The Eritrean Youth Collective [Formerly Coalition] (EYC) came into existence in 2006 after participating in a United Nations University for Peace (UPEACE) initiative whereby a number of diaspora communities (Afghan, Colombian, Haitian, Eritrean, Ethiopian and Jamaican) were requested to produce community-based research on their diaspora communities in Toronto.
EYC's founding members worked on that initiative and realized the need for safe, neutral space for youth to gather, share ideas and work together for the betterment of our community. Through that experience, the decision was made to become an organization. After that project, funding was sought from the City of Toronto's Access, Equity & Human Rights (AEHR) grant for our first project called Through Engagement Sustaining Future Achievement (T.E.S.F.A, which means "hope" in Tigrinya.)
We increasingly recognized, however, that there was a need to provide consistent and reliable programming for youth to have real impact. So after a few more projects in 2007- 2011 (Hibret, which engaged the community in a series of monthly dialogues related to various themes and Menfes, which sought to engage youth in mixed-media art forms to tell stories of migration, tradition reclaiming our oral histories, a youth summer camp, etc.), the EYC steering committee successfully applied for the Access to Mentorship Program as implemented by For Youth Initiative (FYI), funded by Youth Challenge Fund.
What are some of the objectives of the group?
Our main objective is to provide all Eritrean youth with innovative and meaningful learning opportunities. We strive to promote civic engagement and leadership development so that youth better understand their communities and how they can play a role in influencing decisions that affect them. Being a youth-led organization, one of our founding principles was to build youth capacity by enabling them to participate in EYC in whatever way they see themselves fitting in.
What are some of the current projects that EYC is busy implementing?
EYC is currently running three projects; Eritreans Learning and Empowering Leaders (ELEL), an inter-generational project that engages Eritrean youth and parents in educational attainment programs and leadership workshops supported by the Laidlaw Foundation and the City of Toronto; Sharing Experiences and Motivating Artistic Youth (SEMAY) acts as a space for youth to learn, increase confidence and share their stories and passion through film while addressing the social issues they face daily in Toronto, supported by ArtReach Toronto; the Anthology, a published collection of artistic creativity by Eritrean youth in Toronto, supported by the Laidlaw Foundation.
EYC has been able to create employment opportunities for youth in our community currently staffing five people on a full and part-time basis. We are also engaging the broader community by building our board membership and have recently obtained our not-for-profit status. Our website has also recently been launched and has been extremely well received by our community (www.eritreanyouthcollective.com).
What are some of the challenges of Eritrean-Canadian youth in Toronto?
The challenges are similar to those experienced by many youth from newcomer communities. Youth are navigating dual cultures, which are sometimes diametrically opposed. This means that there is a tension between their personal, community and family expectations. There is a need for neutral community spaces where youth can convene to talk about issues that affect their lives such as education, employment, career navigation, identity and health.
The broader context of socioeconomic issues impacting Eritrean families weighs heavily on our youth. Most families are first-generation Canadian; and thus, are newly engaging in Canadian systems and institutions (education, health, politics, etc.) which means that youth are likely leaders in making choices for their own lives and are directly supporting the development and trajectory of their families life changes here in Canada. We want to be able to help youth address these issues and equip them with the tools to be successful. We also just want to be a space for creative people to get together and explore their passions in a non-threatening, fun environment!
I am aware of some of the social events the group has hosted in the past. Why are these events important?
These are extremely important. Living in a busy urban life, with the demands of school, work and family, many of our youth constantly tell us that they miss being around each other in a relaxed atmosphere. They love coming to events, collaborating, sharing ideas, having in-depth discussions and just getting to know each other. EYC is carving out a space for these exchanges to happen. It is a space for youth to connect with each other and to build support networks, give each other morale and ultimately play a role in each others growth. It's essential for cultural preservation, knowledge sharing and building community that youth have a space where they feel comfortable to fully express their Canadian and Eritrean identities.
Where would you want to see EYC in five years?
In five years, we hope to have a viable and sustainable organization that provides employment and internship opportunities for youth - being a trusted resource for both first generation and newcomer youth. We'd like to continue working with other youth-led partners and organizations to be advocates for increased opportunities not only for Eritrean youth but African-Canadian youth at large. In five years we look forward to continue sharing our rich history and culture and how we experience these in Canada with all Canadians -- all from a youth perspective.