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Career Pathways for Refugee Youth


by Bertha Mo


Refugee youth face not only the normal upheavals of adolescence, but also deal with pre-migration trauma, including war and other types of violence, family dislocation and lack of consistent education. In addition, newcomer youth may be re-victimized and susceptible to racial discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment upon their arrival in Canada. Isolated, poorly integrated youth often drop out of school and become prey to local gang recruitment.

Rather than a therapy group which might have seemed strange and even stigmatizing to the youth, the Counselling Program at the Ottawa Community Immigration Services Organization (OCISO) developed supportive groups for refugee youth called, Career Pathways. This is a series of eight 14-week , one-hour, school-based workshops which simulate a Canadian workplace to help youth to learn through modelling, acceptable behaviours and life skills.

The youth are selected by school staff, including teachers, counsellors and administrators, aided by Multi-cultural Liaison Officers (MLO) who also work with our parent organization, OCISO. Before joining the group, youth are screened by either a Certified Clinical Counsellor or a Registered Social Worker and a graduate student from either of those professional groups.

This program, which is still evolving, began in 2009 and has served approximately 350 refugee youth, between the ages of 14-19. Results include improved behaviour and attendance at school and increased access to part-time jobs. With additional funding, we hope to track longer-term results such as graduation from high school and entrance into higher education or the job market.

Demographics of Newcomer Youth in Canada

Between 1999 and 2008, the number of newcomer youth between the ages of 15-24 settling in Canada has increased from 28,125 to 37,425 (24.9% increase). Every year, an average of 35,000 immigrant and refugee youth between the ages of 15-24 settle in Canada (15% of newcomers). The majority (79.8%) are from racialized “visible minority” backgrounds. Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver have the largest numbers of refugee youth.

Ottawa is the second largest recipient of immigrants in Ontario after Toronto and the GTA, and is possibly the second largest recipient of secondary migration, mostly from Quebec (Citizenship and Immigration Canada, 2006).

The Career Pathways Model

In a supportive, school-based setting, which emulates a very realistic work setting, two facilitators act as career coaches. Youth develop self-awareness through the use of assessment tools to identify personality traits, values, interests, skills and abilities as well as develop and practice leadership and conflict mediation skills. Resume preparation, job search techniques, identifying volunteer or paid opportunities, and examining options for post-secondary education are some of the professional skills they acquire. Ottawa police officers come to discuss the concept of choices and the consequences of poor choices with the youth.

During the first session, the group establishes the rules and the sanctions governing their workplace. They learn leadership skills as they take turns acting as the timekeeper, group assembler, punctuality specialist and archivist/group photographer.

In a safe and supportive environment, the students are able to discover their strengths and weaknesses. These discussions help them to explore and plan a suitable career path. They are able to identify employment options as well as learn job search skills and techniques. A very important part of the group is learning appropriate, responsive behaviours. This raises their awareness of professional conduct in a Canadian workplace as well as in school.

Career Pathways is funded by the United Way of Ottawa, Juniper Network Foundation, and the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services.

Bertha Mo, Manager of the Counselling Program at Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization (OCISO), has resided in Ottawa for 20 years. A native San Franciscan, she has a Ph.D. in medical anthropology and a MPH in community health education, both from the University of California at Berkeley.

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