Summer Camp Gives Refugee Kids a Chance to Connect

UBC students behind the East Vancouver Newcomer Camp draw on the power of sport to help kids feel at home.

June 23, 2017

By Christine Beyleveldt / Photo: Kamal Arafa

Duncan Bernardo knows the feeling of being in a foreign country with no language to share with the locals. When he was 11 years old, his family moved from their home in East Vancouver to Spain for a year, and as a boy who had a hard time grasping Spanish, he had to find other means of making friends. “The move was a little bit unexpected, so when I got there I didn’t know any Spanish at all,” he explains. “[But] when I was there I was able to play soccer, so I was able to join in on their games.”

Bernardo quickly discovered that he could connect to the local children in Spain through a mutual love of soccer, and that’s an experience the now 19-year-old, along with high school friend Dakota Koch, 20, is offering to newly arrived refugee children through the East Vancouver Newcomer Camp. News coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis inspired the friends, both UBC students, to take action and help refugees with limited English who have come to the Lower Mainland over the last two years. They started the day camp for kids between the ages of six and 12 last summer, building on Koch’s experience coaching under 12 water polo and Bernardo’s adjustment period in Spain.

But kids coming from a war-torn country need more than just soccer to help them adjust, says Bernardo. “A lot of [these kids] moved out of Syria when they were quite young and have been through refugee camps in neighbouring areas like Jordan and Lebanon, and so they’ve had no formal schooling,” he says. “There was one kid [last year] who’d never even held a pencil.” With many of the campers heading to school for the first time come summer’s end, the eight-week camp mimics regular school days twice a week from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. English classes are held in the morning and afternoons are dedicated to playing sports and games outside, including capture the flag, cops and robbers and kick the can.

Over 1,800 Syrian refugees settled in the Lower Mainland last year alone. Nearly half of them made homes in Surrey, which hosts one of the two camps, the other is in East Vancouver. Priority is given to the most recent arrivals and those with the most limited English abilities. While most campers are Syrian, refugee children from all over the world who are living in the Lower Mainland are eligible. “Even if their English abilities aren’t perfect, they’ll still be able to connect with the other children,” says Bernardo. Last year, instructors focused on equipping students with English fundamentals and this year they’ll be expanding that mandate to introduce campers to interaction-based scenarios, such as going to a doctor’s appointment.

The camp runs a public donation campaign through its webpage that will go towards covering the costs of insurance, renting sports equipment and classroom facilities and providing packed lunches, transit passes and school supplies. Last year, the camp ran on individual donations and garnered the attention of several media companies including Brix Media, Joanne Turner Brand Strategy, Post Pro Media and Grey Advertising, who took on the task of developing the camp’s marketing, administration and brand strategies pro bono. With a refreshed image and $10,000 currently in the bank, their end goal is to raise $30,000 by June 31 to put 60 children through summer camp in July and August.

“These children have gone through a lot of traumatic experiences … and when they come here it can be really scary,” says Bernardo. Koch adds that they focus on building the confidence these children need to approach other schoolchildren during recess when they go to school. Moreover, their largest goal is to extend a warm and welcoming hand on behalf of Canadians.

The camp will be accepting donations on an ongoing basis throughout the summer. To donate, click here.

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