January 01, 2009

Immigrant youth face uphill battle

edmontonsun.com Immigrant youth face uphill battle


Dereje came to Edmonton via Halifax from Ethiopia less than a year ago, scarred by violent persecution and hopeful for a new start.

He says the Ethiopian government tortured him because he is part of the Oromo minority in the country. In an attempt to flee the long-standing ethnic conflict, he sought refuge in neighbouring countries after he finished Grade 12. Then, 10 months ago, a Red Cross worker helped him apply for refugee status in Canada. He came here, jobless, without work skills and speaking almost no English.

When he first arrived in the city a friend he met at a refugee camp let him temporarily stay at his house. But after a few months he wanted a home of his own, so he found two willing roommates and rented a one-bedroom apartment.

“When I came to Canada there (were) different expectations,” he said through a translator. “But nothing is worse than the life I had in my country.”

Young immigrants make up a unique portion of homeless youth - or those, like Dereje, who teeter on the brink of it - in Edmonton. Their barriers to housing are complex and, often, significantly different from Canadian-born youth, front line workers explain.

Services for youth in their 20s are arguably even scarcer than those for teens. Some organizations consider youth people as old as 29 but, in Edmonton, non-profits that lend a hand often only help those up to 18 or 19, says Jim Gurnett, executive director of the Mennonite Centre for Newcomers.

“Edmonton doesn’t have a large number of really young (immigrants in need) ... compared to some cities, like Toronto, but what it does have is a lot of young people in their early 20s,” he said.

Many of these people start out in eastern Canada then come to Edmonton in search of work. When they arrive, their dreams are quickly shattered when they realize they have no connections or job skills and poor English.

“There are in Edmonton definitely people who know how to then prey on those young people. It’s great if they find their way to us and we have housing or they find their way to the Youth Emergency Shelter Society, but there’s a few who don’t find their way anywhere,” he said.

That’s when they get sucked into a world of gangs, drugs, violence or prostitution.

Gurrnet’s account closely matches the stories of the four young Somali men shot to death in the city over the last four months.

“These are kids who are yearning for a chance to have a different, positive life - and yet we let them down with programs that aren’t available or adequate and they wind up on the streets,” he said.

YESS’s programs see enough young immigrants using their services to merit employing a cultural diversity advocate to help the kids connect with their culture and work through the immigration process, says to executive director Deb Cautley.

“We’re seeing kids that get sponsored by people who are loosely connected to their family or somebody their family met in a refugee camp,” she said. “They get here and they want those kids to be almost servants or they say, ‘We don‚t really know who you are. You can’t live here.’”

The shelter has even had more than a few cases of kids brought over for human trafficking - exploited either sexually or for labour, she added. There have also had a couple of so-called lost boys of Somalia and a former child solider.

“These kids have seen more in their little lives than we ever have,” Cautley said. “They come with post traumatic stress disorder, many, many health problems ... They're just little messes and they come here and it takes them a while to trust us and to know we‚re not going to harm them.”

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