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When Afghan and Syrian refugee girls first arrive at Free Play For Kids’ Welcome to Play program in Edmonton, they automatically gather together, and take a seat on the bench. Sitting on the sidelines, not participating in sports, is engrained in them.

While the girls sit out, the boys excitedly kick soccer balls, and bounce basketballs to one another. When when they’re given a hockey stick, the boys are reminded of weapons they have seen in their home countries, before arriving in Canada. They pretend to shoot each other, mimicking what they have witnessed growing up. This violence is all they know.

Free Play For Kids, AB

This year, however, these children have coaches who have been given proper training and certification to help them cope with their trauma, and channel it through sport, as they participate in Welcome to Play’s sport and recreation activities. Within a week, the girls are off the bench, happily playing a variety of sports together. The boys are taught how to properly hold a hockey stick, and they use it to practice playing one of Canada’s most beloved games.

Free Play For Kids, which runs Welcome to Play, was able to hire youth leaders for the program, while breaking down many barriers to sport and recreation for young refugees, thanks to the Canadian Parks and Recreation Association’s Reaching Each and Every One: A Community Sport Intervention program. This program, which was funded by Sport Canada’s Community Sport for All Initiative, seeks to remove barriers and increase sport participation rates for equity deserving groups across Canada.

Kiddos are working with their coach on their art skills during a break from daily sport. This space is when our coaches often get to know the kids best

“At Welcome to Play, we don’t keep scores. We don’t care if one of them becomes the next Connor McDavid. None of that matters to us. The point of our program is to build safe spaces, to educate kids, to help kids process their traumas and help with their mental health, and to help facilitate resettling in a country after they’ve experienced things that no one should,” says Sonny Sekhon, chief revenue officer of Free Play For Kids. “This funding has given us credibility, and given all of our staff a chance to believe in what we’re doing. It has helped us drive our mission forward.”

Sekhon says Welcome to Play started about three years ago during the COVID-19 pandemic, and was geared towards newcomer and refugee youth living in settlement hotels and transitional housing in Edmonton. Since its inception, he says, Welcome to Play has served as a safe space for these children who face language, financial, and transportation barriers to sport.

He says the funding has helped cover the costs of running Welcome to Play and its activities – allowing children to participate for free, and giving them free transportation to the activity sites from their settlement hotels.

But Sekhon says these participants are also dealing with trauma, and a lack of trust in their new environment. That’s why the organization also invested the funding in hiring youth leaders who can provide peer support that these children desperately need.

“For us, the single biggest cost is having really good people that are trained, and have the language skills and emotional learning skills to work with these kids who have witnessed horrible, horrible things around the world,” Sekhon explains. “They’ll never forget it, but maybe through sport and recreation, they can rewrite their narratives.”

Sekhon adds that he has seen first-hand the impact these youth leaders have made on participants who continue to struggle with their trauma while they’re at the program, and the significant role that sport and recreation plays in helping them cope.

Coaches have set up a bit of an obstacle course for the kids to test their skills with during a camp day

“Our youth leaders don’t brush aside the trauma because it’s very real, and it’s raw, and they’re letting them get it out and process it,” Sekhon says. “They can remind these kids of other things – and this is all through sport, and building communities, and building a space for these kids.”