Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/6/2021 (346 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It’s been three years since William Onunkwo immigrated to Canada from South Africa, but he still remembers clearly what those first few weeks were like at his new high school.
"I came in there, and they (the other students) were like, ‘You come from Africa? Do you sleep with the lions?’" said Onunkwo, now a Grade 12 student in Winnipeg.
At the time, he was quick to try and set the record straight and educate his new classmates.
Fortunately, the seventeen-year-old says, a lot has changed in the last few years.
Before, "silly" remarks or race-based microaggressions would’ve been casually dismissed as jokes. But the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer — along with a number of other police brutality cases against Black Americans and hate crimes against BIPOC Canadians over the last year — had the unintended consequence of creating more self-awareness about day-to-day racism in many places around the world, including Canada.
Now, many Canadians are trying to be more informed and thoughtful about what they’re saying and doing when it comes to race, said Onunkwo.
Stand up to racism
The Winnipeg teen is committed to furthering this positive development. He is part of a group of more than a dozen youth taking part in an eight-week program called Stand Up to Racism Together run by Newcomers Employment and Education Development Services (N.E.E.D.S.) Inc., a non-profit charitable organization in the city.
The program is supported through a $15,000 grant from the TELUS Friendly Future Foundation, an independent registered charity that supports grassroots and community-based organizations across the country.
Through Stand Up to Racism Together, the youth, all newcomers to Canada and between the ages of 15 and 21, are learning how to identify racism, stereotypes, and racism-related stress. Then, working one-on-one with a professional graphic designer, they’ve each created an empowering poster for social media exploring what racism means to them.
Onuntwo describes his poster as a take on the raised fist symbol synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement, but instead of just one fist, there are multiple hands from different races united together.
"If we can come together and work together, there will be a huge change in the world," he said.
Ebyan Warsame, a psycho-social educator at N.E.E.D.S., says the program has been invaluable in creating a safe place for youth to talk about their shared experiences with racism.
"For a lot of youth, they haven't had space provided to them at school, or have conversations like that, where people can relate to them and where they won’t be judged," said Warsame.
"It’s a safe place. They have a support system with each other."
A safe place
The youth involved in the program come from all around the world including Eritrea, Nigeria, Congo, the Philippines, and Syria. They’ve all spoken up about being unfairly stereotyped, teachers who don’t learn how to properly pronounce their names, or being told their food smells.
Warsame says the ability to speak openly with peers is especially important right now, amid all the struggles youth are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Because of the pandemic, a lot of people have been feeling more isolated lately and haven't been able to speak or be around people like we have been before," she said.
The program has also been useful in teaching participants how to use computer software like Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator.
Warsame says the majority of the youth had not used this software before and were amazed they were able to take their ideas and transform them into a piece of art to share online.
N.E.E.D.S. CEO Margaret von Lau says the mission of the centre, which has been operating for more than 20 years, is to provide educational, employment and mental health support to newcomer youth and adults.
The programs run by the centre touch on everything from career coaching to English classes to preparing children to enter the Canadian school system.
Von Lau started the centre with a friend after immigrating from Poland as a highly educated single mother who was unable to find work in her field in Canada.
Since then, the centre has helped countless newcomers, some who were engineers and doctors in their home country, transition in Canada into suitable employment. The centre now focuses solely on helping newcomer youth and children.
"Employment gives people dignity, independence and opportunity to grow," said von Lau.
Jessalie Macam, 20, has been attending the after-school youth program at N.E.E.D.S. for three years.
Originally from the Philippines, Macam credits the centre for helping her get hired at a movie theatre, where she still works while attending college.
For her art project, Macam decided to highlight the exploitation of child labour in other countries, an homage to the 2013 garment factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 people.
It’s a story that still impacts her to this day, and she hopes her art project can shine a light on employment inequalities abroad.
"For me, it’s very important because it helps young people like me have a small voice in creating this artwork," she said.
The TELUS Friendly Future Foundation™ gives more Canadians a chance to reach their full potential, to ensure that nobody gets left behind. Together, we can help our local communities thrive. To learn more, visit friendlyfuture.com
This article is produced by the Advertising Department of the Winnipeg Free Press, in collaboration with Telus