Day camp for refugee kids includes lunch by executive chef

Winnipeg Free Press - 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.

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.

"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.

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.

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