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The lost demographic

Fadi Hamdan has come a long way from Jordan. Only three years after arriving in Canada, the 20-year-old is now a youth worker at the local YMCA Centre for Immigrant Programs.

But his accomplishments did not come without trial.

“When I came here, I really needed someone to help show me around and help me around the city, and I didn’t have that,” he says.

“If you’re over 21, you’re treated as an adult and you’re expected to prove yourself as one. But it’s difficult to do when you’re in a new country,” Hamdan says.

In 2001, Statistics Canada reported 2,260 of the immigrants in Halifax belonged to the 18 to 24 age group.

Many of them face challenges similar to the ones Hamdan did.

Often classified as “adult” children of immigrants, these youth are too old for the public school system, but too young to fit in an adult English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.

Sarah Cooper, a Settlement Worker for Refugees at the Metropolitan Immigration Settlement Association (MISA) says that there is not enough support for this particular age group.

“To put them in adult ESL is not the best option,” she says. “They will be with older people and won’t have that peer support their own age. But you also can’t put a 21-year-old with grade 10s.”

Carmen Moncayo, MISA family counsellor, compares this age group’s situation to “being in a vacuum”.
She says the options for them right now aren’t good enough.

While younger immigrant children are able to adapt quickly to Canadian life, and pick up English easier, their older siblings find it more difficult. Social circles and peer groups are almost non-existent for the adult children of immigrants.

For Hamdan this was certainly true.

“My younger brothers handled it really well,” Hamdan says. “They made friends and had school and they had a chance to practice their English.”

“For me, I had to go to work, and I couldn’t make friends a lot of the time and didn’t have the same chance to practice my English,”

From her experience with refugee cases, Cooper says that a lot of older youth still want to get an education.

“Many of them say themselves that they want to be in high school,” she says.

But for those who want to study, the process is strenuous and in most cases, long. While most people their age are in university, these youth are taking years just to get ready for post-secondary opportunities.

“It’s very frustrating for them to go through six to eight years of high school and ESL before they are ready,” says Cooper.

“There needs to be some flexibility with schooling options, so students can simultaneously have ESL and high school,” she says.

Moncayo agrees that the educational options for this demographic is in want of reform.

“We need to find the right way to respond to their situations,” she says. “Universities, ESL schools, high schools and immigration services all need to be on board.”

A new nominee program that started this past summer may help address some of the issues this age group faces. The program is designed to attract young immigrants to the Canadian workforce. Foreign credentials will also be more widely recognized.

And, people registered with a Nova Scotia Nominee Program visa will be entitled to study in Canada.

One of the goals is to try to keep families together. Previously, any child over the age of 21 wishing to immigrate to Nova Scotia with their families had to apply separately. As a result, many families were separated.

“The kind of criteria for the old program (was) based on a more western idea of family,” Moncayo says.

Cooper says it’s more inclusive now.

“It’s quite challenging to have to leave behind any child,” she says.

This demographic doesn’t deserve the short straw they have been given. Even though younger newcomers have more opportunities and services available to them, their older siblings prove to be just as successful.

“There is so much potential at that age. They bring a great deal of strength to the table that helps overcome the obstacles,” says Cooper. “But they do need help to remove these obstacles.”

MISA and YMCA organize mentorships and other programs to help newcomers adapt better to Canada. But Hamdan says older immigrant youth need more recreational activities to increase their chances of practicing English.

“The key is to be patient,” he says “Try to be open-minded and take the good from your culture, and the good from Canadian culture, and mix it up.”

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