In Damascus, where he owned two restaurants, Elias Haddad was the executive chef who didn't do the day-to-day cooking. In Winnipeg, he's back in the kitchen, cooking up a storm for 300 refugee kids every weekday this summer.

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This article was published 22/8/2018 (1199 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In Damascus, where he owned two restaurants, Elias Haddad was the executive chef who didn't do the day-to-day cooking. In Winnipeg, he's back in the kitchen, cooking up a storm for 300 refugee kids every weekday this summer.

On Wednesday, baked chicken was on the menu -- one of the favourites of the children and youth at the Kurdish Initiative for Refugees.

Elias Haddad was the executive chef at two restaurants he owned in Damascus. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press) </p>

Elias Haddad was the executive chef at two restaurants he owned in Damascus. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

The summer day camp is run by resettled Syrian Kurds but attended youth aged five to 24 from 18 countries.  The federally funded program began in 2016 with the surge of Syrian arrivals in Manitoba, said founder Nour Ali. It's grown from 35 kids the first summer to 350 this year at two sites in Winnipeg and one in Brandon, Man.

For Majd Hamrasho, 15, who arrived in Canada with his family 15 months ago, it's safe and structured fun. He belongs to one of six refugee families living on Dufferin Avenue who were in the news last September after being harassed, threatened and told they're not welcome in Canada.

Now Majd and his family live in North Kildonan where he attends the summer youth program at Douglas Mennonite Church and volunteers.

Douha Haji Mouhammad (left) and Widad Kassem. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press) </p>

Douha Haji Mouhammad (left) and Widad Kassem. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

"I'm here to have fun and play with kids," said Majd who could only say "hi" and "bye" in English when he arrived in Canada. "I help organize activities," he said.

"He's really a role model," said the Kurdish Initiative for Refugees' founder, Ali. The former journalist, businessman and resettled Syrian refugee has children of his own and says the summer camp is providing learning and recreational opportunities for refugee kids who would otherwise be at home watching TV or left at loose ends. Instead, they've had a chance to experience places like the Assiniboine Park Zoo, Fun Mountain and Kildonan Park that connect them to their city.

"We want them to integrate and accept everybody," Ali said over blaring hip-hop music in the church basement where boys and girls were line dancing. In the next room, the youngest kids sat in a big circle on the floor for a hand-slapping English-language counting game.

Maya Hassan (left) smiles as she looks over to her friend, Suzan Cheik Hamden. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press) </p>

Maya Hassan (left) smiles as she looks over to her friend, Suzan Cheik Hamden. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

"I like to do activities and crafts," said Suzan Cheikh Hamadeh, 10, who was busy making crepe-paper flowers out of streamers for a fund raiser for Aurora Family Therapy Centre being held Monday at the church.

Suzan has been attending the summer program since it began in 2016 at the church, which has a gym, a theatre and a commercial kitchen in which Haddad and another chef do the cooking with two kitchen helpers. They prepare snacks and lunch every day for delivery to the youth program downtown at the University of Winnipeg RecPlex.

The program is helping kids with their communication skills while giving adults like chef Haddad the Canadian work experience that employers want, said Ali. It's teaching teens like Majd leadership and English language skills, and it's also providing jobs for young adult refugees.

Royar Nassan (left) and Almehrath Husam at lunch. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press) </p>

Royar Nassan (left) and Almehrath Husam at lunch. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Over at the University of Winnipeg RecPlex, Damhat Ahmad, 23, is running the youth program after arriving in Canada 18 months ago. He learned English by watching YouTube tutorials in Lebanon, where he and his single-parent mom and brother who fled Syria struggled to survive.

"I worked for $500 a month and the rent was $450," he said. They had no legal rights in the country overwhelmed by refugees and rife with religious tensions. Ahmad had to work at a low-wage, under-the-table job with few rights and no protection. He was so badly beaten by a group of men in Lebanon once that he spent several days in hospital. "People were hating me because I'm from Syria."

In Winnipeg at the beginning of the summer, Damhat saw hints of religious bias that some of the refugee kids picked up outside of Canada.

The program has grown from 35 kids the first summer to 350 this year at three sites in Winnipeg and Brandon. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

The program has grown from 35 kids the first summer to 350 this year at three sites in Winnipeg and Brandon. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

"Some kids were scared to play with the other kids because of the religious fighting," he said, watching primary school-age boys scrimmaging on the RecPlex soccer pitch with the girls, some of whom wore headscarves.

"There are a lot of challenges," said Ahmad. "The language and the cultural rules are very different."

Initially, some parents were worried about letting their kids out of their sight. Others had issues with girls and boys mixing.

"It was difficult at first," said Ahmad, who graduated from high school overseas and is studying for his Canadian Grade 12 so he can attend university next year. He said the kids' parents were eventually convinced that the program was keeping youth off the streets and helping them integrate.

"They know we're making something better for all of us."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.