Newcomer youth get help coping through My Circle

School’s out for the summer, but in a Port Moody Secondary portable, a dozen teens circle a table dabbling in fingerpaints.

Their palms turn colours as they create a collage of cultural values. Some youth – newcomers from Afghanistan, Iraq, China, Iran, Korea, Mexico, Egypt and Colombia – draw symbols: mountains, money, hearts.

Several draw flags from Korea, Iran, Mexico. No one paints a Canadian flag.

The teens are part of the Immigrant Services Society of B.C.’s Multicultural Youth or “MY Circle” peersupport program.

Since 2002 it’s helped 700 immigrant youth navigate culture shock and identity issues.

MY Circle youth worker Sahar Sayyadi says it throws newcomers a lifeline.

“They realize they are not the only lost soul floundering, saying, ‘What am I? Who am I? Where am I going to go?'” said the 25-year-old, who went through the course after she arrived from Iran in 2002.

“It was my lifesaver. Friends and family back home would call and ask, ‘How is Canada?’ I would have to lie. It was torture.”

Yet as she struggled, she knew the once-a-week MY Circle would offer her a space to “be me without having to put on a front.”

Reconciling identity and culture is something thousands of new Canadian youth struggle with.

By some government estimates, 7,900 immigrant youth arrive in B.C. annually.

As adolescents, they already struggle with identity. Suddenly, they must adapt to new languages, schools, status, gender roles, and, sometimes, discrimination.

MY Circle regional manager Andrea Canales said this can “feel like a limbo. You can’t go back. You are not the same anymore. You want to honour where you are coming from (and learn) how to remain true to yourself and … embrace new things without feeling guilty.”

UBC registered psychologist Aneesa Shariff says internal conflict over assimilation can create real psychological distress for these youth. “They really feel torn between cultures that can feel in opposition to each other,” said Shariff, who has a doctorate in counselling psychology and has studied ethnic identity and parenting in immigrant families.

Youth experiment with Western styles of music, dress and socializing that parents find threatening. Parents crack down and clashes result.

“There is a fear of their child becoming corrupted or losing their heritage values,” explained Shariff.

Tommy Yu, 17, recalls fights with his mother over her Chinese values prioritizing academics.

“We had a really huge argument about whether I should join a sports team,” said the Pinetree Secondary student. “But later my mom adapted into the Canadian culture.”

A report on a summit of the Vancouver Foundation’s immigrant and refugee Youth Advisory Team found some youth struggled.

“I don’t know how to communicate with my parents because they are like: ‘Are you ashamed of us?” one youth said. “They see my adoption of Canadian life as somehow a rejection of them.”

Family strains add extra pressure. Parents who had professional jobs in their home country may need to do menial labour here to pay bills. Money is tight.

A 2011 Immigrant Services Society report on Bhutanese youth in Coquitlam found many “incredibly worried” about money and “desperate to find a job … to assist their families.”

Iranian-born Sepehr Barzegari, 15, said the struggles of his parents, trained physiotherapists, weigh on him: “It is hard for them. They sent all of their resumes to the offices, now they are waiting.”

Youth are often thrust into the role of head of household, using more advanced English to help parents read bills, shop in grocery stores and translate in school meetings.

“It does force them to grow up faster,” Shariff said.

Vancouver Foundation’s Mark Gifford, who oversees the Youth Advisory Team, explains this can create “a kind of flip in dependencies. They begin to occupy a place in the family structure of an adult. That changes family dynamics.”

Karen refugee Nay Tee, 16, worries about letting his family down when he’s unable to translate.

“If I don’t know, and my mom and dad don’t know,” he said, “who is going to help us?” Other youth take pride in the role.

Vinko Kvass, a 15-year-old from Mexico, translates for his mother about town: “I try to go everywhere and help her … because my mother has always cared about me … this is my chance to help her.”

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