Exploring belonging: Experiences of refugee children and families in a Montreal recreational setting

Project Researchers

Lyn Morland

McGill University School of Social Work

Nicole Ives
Project Lead

Associate Professor at McGill University

Project Video

Project Description

Project Description:

Summer camps are a tradition for many children in Canada. Children have opportunities to spend their day being physically active, gain confidence from successes, break from technology, have free time for unstructured play, practice social skills, reconnect with nature, and make and strengthen friendships. In Montreal, summer camp can also be a context where refugee children and families can develop a sense of belonging in a new country. For over 40 years, Camp Cosmos has provided a 6-week summer camp to children from diverse cultural backgrounds focused on music, athletics, ecology, yoga, and science. Families typically have low, fixed incomes and are newly arrived refugees or single parents.

In response to the Syrian refugee crises, Camp Cosmos expanded in 2016 to create a second camp on Montreal’s West Island. That year, 23 Syrian children were welcomed at both the West Island and Downtown locations. This past summer, numbers rose, with 28 Syrian children and 12 children whose families had recently crossed the Canadian/USA border for a total of 40 (camp fees waived). The total number of campers in 2017 was 121 (up from 50 in 2014). In addition to welcoming Syrian campers, there were also 3 young Syrian counselors-in-training who had their first Canadian job experience.

Shy at first, often speaking neither official language, newly arrived refugee children have quickly embraced the camp experience, making new friends, learning French and English, and having the freedom to just be children – forgetting the trauma of displacement and war. Canadian-born children who may suffer other kinds of vulnerability are also benefitting from these new relationships, created in an atmosphere of hospitality and trust. Camp Cosmos represents much more than a summer day camp experience – it creates space for those first friendships to form, to feel a sense of belonging in one’s new home and the recognition that all the gifts and talents rooted in one’s heart have space to blossom and grow. Parents and extended family also benefit by feeling a connection to their new home via their children and on a more practical level, they have time during the day to address the bureaucratic issues refugees face, knowing their children are safe and happy. For example, a recently arrived Palestinian family felt completely overwhelmed and lost. The camp’s Arabic-speaking staff was able to establish a relationship of trust with the parents, register the children in the camp and orient the family to appropriate community services, including employment.

From a government resettlement perspective, integration equals economic self-sufficiency, particularly in a North American context (Ives, 2007). Assessments of integration center on financial independence from government assistance and refugees’ access to rights and services. Sustainable integration, however, is much broader than economic participation; long-term integration consists of social, economic, cultural, and political participation in the host country while maintaining a relationship with the country of origin (Berry, 2003; Valtonen, 2004). While economic participation is critical to integration, “there is also a strong desire to belong in a more emotional and culturally meaningful way, a desire which is blocked … by experiences of exclusion by the mainstream population and cultural differences” (Fozdar & Hartley, 2013, p. 139). Belonging has been conceptualized as a sense of attachment to others and togetherness (Guo & Dalli, 2016); for refugees, this is the extent to which one feels like he or she is an accepted part of, that is, belongs to and in the new country. For refugee 2 children, this creation of a sense of belonging in their new country typically happens when they participate in new educational contexts. Greater senses of belonging in schools has been found to be associated with lower depression and higher self-efficacy, regardless of the extent to which they have been exposed in to adversities in the past (Kia-Keating & Ellis, 2007).

There is very limited research on the sense of belonging held by refugee children and parents in early childhood educational and recreational settings. Proposed study researchers have experience in refugee resettlement and early childhood education and, therefore, deeply understand how the importance of quality recreational experiences can have substantial positive impacts on young children’s social and emotional, cognitive, and language development in the short term, on educational success and health in the long term, and on their feelings of belonging in and connectedness with their new communities. Findings could potentially inform research-based models and policy regarding culturally grounded recreational programs. It is critical to approach developing a sense of belonging among refugee children and families by weaving together their cultures from their countries of origin in order to strengthen a sense of bicultural belonging and identity for refugee children and families in Montreal together with sustaining a sense of belonging and identity with the home country.

The proposed study would be an exploration of belonging for refugee children. Study findings would provide the foundation for a larger grant application to explore refugee children’s recreational experiences in different resettlement sites across Canada. This project would explore constructs and processes of belonging using a participatory research approach, involving refugee children, Counselors in Training (CITs; many of whom are refugees), and families who have participated in Camp Cosmos.

Main study questions are: How has participation in Camp Cosmos shaped experiences of social belonging for refugee children, youth, and parents? How do refugee children, youth, and parents think about belonging? In what ways do community organizations facilitate social integration for refugees?

Proposed study objectives include, to:

  • Understand how participation in a summer camp shapes refugee children and families’ sense of belonging to Montreal/Quebec;
  • Explore how to integrate refugees’ cultural contexts into resettlement policy and programming to construct positive outcomes for belonging;
  • Understand how participation in a summer camp can provide children and families with coping mechanisms and a sense of connectedness that might lower anxiety and decrease feelings of isolation;
  • Uncover ways of improving the experience of refugee children who attend Camp Cosmos to:
    • better respond to issues of trauma that could emerge during camp
    • develop tools to equip staff to identify and respond to trauma
    • better understand what is needed to facilitate transition into Canadian society
    • develop age-appropriate programing that provides insight into the refugee experience for Canadian-born children
    • develop new ways of building bridges between Canadian-born and refugee children