Vol. 80, No. 4Cover stories

Man and male teenager play basketball in a gym.

Someone they can talk to

Surrey RCMP reach out to refugee youth

Officers with the Surrey Youth Unit provide mentorship and targeted support to keep refugee youth out of trouble. Credit: RCMP


The influx of refugees to Surrey, B.C., has posed new challenges for school administrators and local RCMP. Both organizations are responding to the waves of migrant children whose socio-economic situations and cultural differences leave them vulnerable to acting out.

"It's really difficult because if they've spent two, three years at a refugee camp, they're not getting regular schooling and they're missing certain milestones that they should have by that age," says Cst. Dylan Horgan, a member of the Surrey RCMP Youth Unit. "Culture shock, a new language, and sometimes absentee parents who have to work all day, all contribute to the problem."

"So the frustration creeps in and the behaviours escalate because they just don't want to be there," says Horgan.

Officers in the youth unit, which is responsible for police matters that happen on school property in the Surrey School District, patrol an area with the largest student enrolment in B.C. Of the more than 77,000 students, nearly half speak a language other than English at home.

When they are registered for school, each refugee student is assessed to determine their education level. Children up to Grade 7 are sent to the nearest elementary school and tend to adjust well. Older students are assessed against a set milestones that determines the school and grade in which they will be placed. The students in this group who often struggle, says Horgan.

Building relationships

Every Friday after school, Horgan and his colleague Cst. John Wilson shoot hoops with students to build good relationships with the kids, provide them with positive mentors and help keep them stay out of trouble. They meet in the gym at Princess Margaret Secondary School.

"We'd get into our civvies, play basketball and half the students would be refugees with nowhere else to go," says Horgan. "They don't want to leave the school, so we just hang out and play basketball with them. It took months before they realized we were police officers."

The constables work closely with school employees designated as Safe School Liaisons (SSL), who informally counsel at-risk students.

A year ago, the Surrey School Board hired an Arabic-speaking SSL to address the wave of refugee students arriving to Princess Margaret Secondary School from Northeast Africa and the Middle East.

Much like many of the kids he has befriended and counselled, France Stanley, 22, immigrated to Canada from Iraq with his parents when he was 14. He says his age and experience help students identify with him, which builds trust and improves communication.

"It's great for them to have someone they can talk to, that they can relate to, and that they know has gone through the same exact problems," says Stanley.

To date, the majority of conflicts involving refugee teens at the school have been minor, though the students' style of confrontation often makes things look more serious.

"It's very loud and right up in their faces and it seems like they're going to physically fight if you didn't understand the words they were saying because they were yelling at each other in Arabic," says Horgan.

The biggest challenge for Stanley hasn't been the students, but their parents who often take longer to adapt to life in Canada than their kids, which can create issues at home and trouble at school, he says. A drop in attendance or marks are usually the first signs of difficulties.

"Life here is very different from the Middle East and sometimes refugee parents aren't willing to sacrifice a few rules to let their kids experience new things," says France.

Positive choices

In cases where a student shows gang-associated behaviour, the school, probation officer, Ministry of Children and Families or a police officer, will refer them to the Surrey Wraparound Program, or WRAP. The program, a first of its kind in Canada, provides a range of services to at-risk youth and their families to encourage more positive lifestyle choices.

Even though children arriving from war zones have been exposed to a higher level of violence, they are at no higher risk of becoming involved in dangerous or illegal activities than non-refugee kids, says Wilson. He and Horgan make up the two-person WRAP team in the Surrey Youth Unit.

"It's not a general rule that refugee kids are going to need more services," says Wilson. "It comes in waves with them, but it comes in waves with local kids as well."

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