Sports open a window into Canada for immigrant teens

posted on August 4, 2014

By Debra Black, the Star | Link to Article

“Okay girls, I want to see some defence,” shouts Andrew Kowalchuk, a YMCA staff member, at his team of football players. “Track the guy who has the ball,” he instructs.

By Debra Black, the Star | Link to Article

“Okay girls, I want to see some defence,” shouts Andrew Kowalchuk, a YMCA staff member, at his team of football players. “Track the guy who has the ball,” he instructs.

And so the girls start to run as the ball is released, attempting to prevent a touchdown by the opposing team of boys.
But the play ends in absolute chaos, with many of the teens running off the field, falling down on the ground or laughing, teasing and elbowing each other.

“That was amazing. But wrong,” says Kowalchuk. The play resumes. “No pressure,” yells Kowalchuk. “It’s second down … The guys are winning 21 to 14.”

On the surface, this casual game of football appears to be just that — an everyday pick-up game of flag football of the kind played by teens across North America through the lazy days of summer.

But this game is slightly different. It’s part of a sports program and a newcomer youth leadership development program run by the YMCA of Greater Toronto, to help integrate newcomers into Canadian society.

On this mid-summer day, about 100 kids from all around the world who now live in the GTA — including Brampton, Mississauga, Etobicoke, Scarborough and North York — have come together to learn about flag football, ultimate Frisbee, basketball and volleyball. There’s even a soccer match or two, for those seeking refuge and comfort in the familiar activities of home.

“It’s fun,” says Omar Kashwah, 14, who arrived with his family from Mansoura, Egypt, only about a month ago. On this particular day he’s learning how to play volleyball. Back home, his passion was music; he plays the oud, an Egyptian instrument something like a Middle Eastern guitar.

Sports wasn’t a big hobby for him back home. But here he’s happy to learn new skills and make new friends, he says. His English is still not fluent, but on the volleyball court he realizes doesn’t need words to make himself understood. He just needs to have a wicked serve and play as part of a team.

A recent study conducted by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship of newcomers and their relationship to sports found that 69 per cent of newcomers who got into sports within their first three years in Canada found it helped them learn about Canadian culture. A whopping 87 per cent of the sports participants felt more connected to their community as a result.

The study also found that newcomers face obstacles when it comes to participating in sports in Canada, including lack of money to buy equipment; lack of someone to play with or even an opportunity to play; lack of knowledge about new sports and appropriate skills; and feeling unwelcome on a team.

Iryna Trusevich, an immigrant from Belarus who is the acting senior director of the program, hopes that for these teens, sports will become part of daily life.

Participating in Canadian sports builds confidence, helps newcomers make friends and gives them some understanding of Canadian culture, she says. Most important, the fact that you’re a newcomer is no barrier in this crowd, because everyone is from somewhere else.

“In sports you don’t need to speak English, you can show your skills and talent and make friends,” explains Trusevich. You also develop leadership skills, she adds.

Sepehr Roshany, 16, came to Canada recently from Tehran, Iran, with his family. He spent the afternoon dribbling basketballs and playing a pick-up game. While much about Canada remains a mystery for him at this point, playing basketball gives him an opportunity to “practise my English and make friends.”

Riya Aggarwal, 15, hails from Chandigarh, India. She has been in Canada for nine months and had never before played North American football or flag football — only the kind known here as soccer.

The shape of the ball used in flag football looks odd to her. But after a few minutes of play, she finds herself getting into the game.
“It’s good,” she says, giggling and laughing, her words running together in her excitement. “It’s the first time I’m playing. It’s a wonderful experience. I’m gaining confidence and making new friends. It’s something new to learn about.”

Still, there was some initial uncertainty. “I’m confused,” she admits. “Where do I have to go? I’m just running where the others are running, just running trying to get the flag.” Then she breaks into giggles again.

Vidhi Chadha, a 19-year-old from Yamunanagar, India, who has just come off the field, laughs along with her. They toss the football back and forth, hamming it up for the Star reporter.

“Football that we’re playing now is very different from what we play in India,” Chadha says. Learning about North American sports like ultimate Frisbee, flag football, volleyball and basketball helps a lot, she says. In playing these sports, “You meet new people and have fun. It’s nice and interesting.”

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