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Playful program helps refugee children feel at home

A Vancouver-based dance class for refugee children is offering daycare and connection for families recently arrived in the country. The…

By Natalie Dobbin , in Culture , on November 18, 2010 Tags: , ,

Program based on a dance program Huang Barnes ran in the Downtown Eastside

A Vancouver-based dance class for refugee children is offering daycare and connection for families recently arrived in the country.

The program, offered by Arts Umbrella and Immigrant Services Society of B.C., is one of Canada’s only arts services for refugee children in their first few weeks of transition.

“I had some misgivings about what the classes would consist of because these kids have come most of them from refugee camps and they are not allowed to make a lot of noise and carry on,” said Jim Siemens, program manager at Welcome House. “But it just was wonderful.”

Welcome House is where all government-assisted refugees first settle in Vancouver.

“It didn’t matter, except for the one child, how long they had been in refugee camps and not been able to move around and play, they certainly got into it right away,” said Siemens.

Approximately 300 children have gone through the program since it started in 2008.

Connecting with kids

Arts Umbrella instructor Kay Huang Barnes, who runs the program, said she is focused on connecting with kids who are displaced after coming from refugee camps.

Huang Barnes uses movement, music and game to try to make the children feel comfortable and safe, as well as how to communicate with them.

“A lot of times they just watch me and they’re just fascinated sometimes with how I move,” she said. “Then they just want to show me and because language is not a problem at all they can show me very easily.”

Huang Barnes shows a doll to a child

She said she tries to figure out what the kids need and also takes movement from them.

Muna Mohamed Ali’s young children were two of the seven participating in a recent class.

Mohamed Ali and her children had arrived in Canada only a few days earlier from a refugee camp in Djibouti, Africa.

Speaking through a translater, Mohamed Ali said that the program helped her and took “good care of my kids” while she did paperwork and errands.

Small hands reached out for bubbles floating around the childcare room. Children twirled while holding streamers. Arms flapped to represent chickens during a game of musical chairs.

Susan Smith, director of development, marketing and communications at Arts Umbrella, said the program, which runs two to three times a week, is a “great leveller.”

“If you’ve got a room full of kids speaking all different languages the activities around movement and music can appeal to all of them and it kind of gives them that escape,” said Smith.

Mix of funders

Chris Friesen, director of settlement services at the society, said he first approached Arts Umbrella two years ago to look into putting on programs for children who had been in refugee camps.

Friesen said the society and Arts Umbrella funded the program initially. Now, OMNI Television supports the program and the rest of the funds come from a mix of corporate, foundation and individual sponsors.

Huang Barnes said she and others are working on starting a Surrey branch of the program because many refugee families with children end up settling there after the transition period.