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This article was published 13/11/2017 (216 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
After being hailed as a pioneer in successfully resettling newcomers, Winnipeg is trying to nip an old problem in the bud — street gangs that target refugee youth.
"Until a year and a half ago, it was pretty calm," said Matthew Fast, mentorship and outreach program manager at the NEEDS Centre (Newcomers Employment and Education Development Services) downtown.
"We rarely heard of new kids getting involved," he said at a Manitoba Criminal Justice Association conference last week. The after-school, mentorship and recreational programs that were started more than a decade ago to prevent vulnerable inner city newcomer kids from being targeted and lured by gangs still appeared to be working, he said.
"As far as we were aware, gang recruitment had pretty much levelled off and was not as much as it used to be," said Fast, who wrote the book Finding Their Way Again: The Experiences of Gang-Affected Refugee Youth.
"Then, things started to spike again," said Fast, who is in contact with resettlement workers, probation officers and police.
"As service providers, we’re asking ourselves, ‘What’s changed?’" The resurgence in newcomer gang activity had nothing to do with the surge in Syrian refugee families who arrived in the city in the winter of 2015-2016.
"Some higher-ranking gang members from various communities were released from prison and building up the gangs again," he said.
"It’s really been on our radar again — a number of youths and young adults have gotten themselves involved."
He was quick to point out that it’s a small fraction of the youth. Out of the 1,500 young people that NEEDS Inc. helps in a year, there may be 10 or 15 who’ve been drawn into gangs.
"When you look at it in that way, it’s a small sample," Fast said. He cited one Winnipeg police gang expert’s estimate that there are at least 100 gang members who are not Canadian citizens and most have an East African background. Fast said the kids they work with are told that criminal activity could have dire circumstances — they could be removed from Canada one day. At the time, it doesn’t always sink in, Fast said, who recalled meeting one youth after he appeared in court.
"He said, ‘I remember everything you said — I will get arrested, I might be deported.’ It’s not for a lack of knowing," Fast said. "They get themselves so far into something before they realize how bad it is," he said.
"The programming is still there."
The challenge is helping young adults get out of gangs, he said.
"As service providers, I think we struggle with some youth — how do we approach them or incorporate them? Is it safe for them to come into our programming and be around other youth? Our approach to some gang-entrenched youth has been off-site outreach, meeting them one-on-one for lunch, to shoot hoops or play soccer," Fast said.
"For a lot of those kids, a lot of people have already abandoned them or written them off. Their mom or dad or caregiver may not be happy with the way they’re living their life... Somebody has to be there when they’re ready to make the change."
Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.