CMHA Toronto opens doors for Syrian and Somali youth

April 2, 2023

In 2016, with 25,000 people arriving in Canada fleeing the trauma of the Syrian civil war, CMHA Toronto expanded its Opening Doors Project to include a youth mentorship component. A more intensive approach to address newcomers’ mental health issues in the context of their resettlement was urgently needed. 

“The youth mentorship program works “at the intersection of immigration, trauma, mental health and the social determinants of health,” said Hsain Al-Shihabi, the program’s first newcomer youth mentor and case manager. Most Syrian refugees who arrived in Canada between January 2015 and May 2016 have settled into their new lives well, according to a December 2022 Environics survey. But for some, especially government-sponsored youth arriving in Ontario, steep language barriers, difficulty finding employment, and culture shock on top of the complex trauma they experienced led down a more difficult path. 

The youth mentorship program works “at the intersection of immigration, trauma, mental health and the social determinants of health”
Hsain Al-Shihabi, youth mentor and case manageR
With funding from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), Hsain was hired by CMHA Toronto in 2016 to develop the client-centric, trauma-informed program from scratch. In the years since, the program has expanded to serve Syrian and Somali youth ages 14 to 29. The unique model helps youth build safe, empowering relationships and pursue their personal, educational, social and health goals guided by peer mentors who have lived experience of migration and re-settlement. 

Building a low-barrier, client-centric program without a blueprint

While the Syrian and Newcomer Youth Mentorship Initiative (SNYMI) now has deep links in the communities it serves and a high level of engagement by youth of all genders, it wasn’t always that way.  

“There were no specifications on how [the IRCC funding] should be used, and this flexibility allowed me to both start small and dream big,” Hsain said. “I started to do outreach in hospitals, police stations, community agencies, schools … just to let them know ‘I am here’, mind you at the time I didn't know what I’m here for!” 

Young women mentees in the SNYMI program formed a committee to organize an annual youth conference, raising awareness of the program and offering newcomer youth skills-building and community interaction. Conferences were held in 2018 and 2019, and the organizers look forward to returning to an in-person event in 2023. Photo of some SNYMI mentees with Hsain Al-Shihabi (right).

This unstructured approach turned out to be one of the project’s strengths. “I molded it around the needs of the community. Theoretically, that’s how all programs should be, but whether we can do that depends on so many factors. Over time, I realized that the approach we have actually makes [a client-led program] possible,” Hsain said. “I positioned myself as somebody who doesn't know, which was the reality and my biggest asset, I think.” 

There's one thing that Hsain did know: “I wanted the people for whom [this program exists] to take the lead. I wanted to liaise between them and resources and possibility. Otherwise, the barriers they face due to their social location would silently keep tethered them to the margins of society.” 

Growth through collaboration

Within about three months, while still doing research, outreach, and partnership development, Hsain had his first couple of clients. He approached each case as an opportunity to collaborate and let the client lead. “I would hear a problem and sit with the youth and say, ‘Hey, what's going on? What do you think the problem is and how can we solve it?’ I have some possibilities in my mind … and they have some ideas,” Hsain explained. He measures success in the extent to which youth take part in identifying the problems they are facing, coming up with ideas, and taking action on the plans they come up with together: “when they're on board, and they're taking part in this development, you know they're invested. The investment speaks to [how well the program] is meeting their needs.” 

 An external evaluation of SNYMI conducted by the Centre for Community-Based Research in 2021 confirms Hsain’s observations of the program’s impact. Youth surveyed rated the program 4.6 out of 5, giving it high marks for the strength of the relationships they had developed with their mentors; the client-centred approach; the availability of wrap-around supports; and the overall positive environment the program created. They cited learning English and Canadian culture, building a sense of community, and improving their mental health as some of the program’s most significant impacts. 

“I wanted the people for whom [this program exists] to take the lead. I wanted to liaise between them and resources and possibility.
Hsain Al-Shihabi

Raising new funds and rising to meet demand: 2020-2025

In the program’s early days, Hsain hadn’t yet developed relationships with schools – now one of the main referral routes for youth. This, too, developed serendipitously and organically. “I was having a hard time meeting with [a youth referred by a community agency] because he was done school at 3:15 and went to work right after. I asked [the school administration] to help me connect with him during school. Later, when they were having problems in the classroom beyond this youth, they asked to consult with me on what to do, and a more formal partnership developed from there.” 

It soon became clear that demand was much greater than Hsain, working alone, could supply. Hsain’s clients came to him by word-of-mouth and through informal contacts he was building with schools with high Syrian immigrant populations. As a result, he found himself with a solely Arabic-speaking, male clientele. He realized there were needs he couldn’t serve.  

Working with Toronto District School Board’s LEAP (Literacy Enrichment Academic Program) and based on information Hsain was gathering in his day-to-day work with youth, the team identified that it needed to address the large demand for Somali-speaking mentors, as well as attract more young women to the program. LEAP statistics showed that 16 percent of its students were Somali-speaking, second only to Arabic at 38 percent.  

Sarah-Lee Umraugh, CMHA Toronto’s Opening Doors program manager, led the successful effort to secure a five-year funding agreement from IRCC. “It really set the foundation for how the program expanded,” explained Sarah-Lee, noting that IRCC’s commitment to fund the program through 2025 enabled it to expand right away by hiring more mentors, deploying them in mixed gender teams, and covering both Arabic and Somali language and culture.   

Mental health is stigmatized. When it comes to the Somali language, we don't even have the vocabulary to talk about mental health. Those words don't even exist in the language. So it's about breaking that down and bringing awareness.
Samia Abdillahi, youth mentor and case manager, SNYMI, CMHA Toronto

Attracting youth of all genders & breaking down stigma

Samia (fourth from left) organized a trip to Wonderland with a group of Somali-speaking youth

That’s when Samia Abdillahi, youth mentor and case manager, became involved. Samia and two other youth mentors were hired, which meant that the program could organize itself in two teams, one Arabic-speaking and one Somali-speaking, each of which comprised a male and a female mentor.  

Samia and her partner got to work immediately, building awareness of the program among Somali youth from the ground up as Hsain had done for the Syrian component, within the added complexity of the 2020 COVID lockdown.  

In 2021, the SNYMI team recognized they needed “more mental health supports because so many of the youth engaging with the program have complex trauma, complicated by the fact that mental health is taboo in many of these communities,” said Sarah-Lee Umraugh. Three mental health counsellors (two women, one Arabic-speaking and one Somali-speaking; and a supervising mental health consultant, also Arabic-speaking) were enlisted as consultants, as well as a parenting specialist who brings a larger family system perspective which had been missing.  

Working with one of his clients who dreamed of having his own soccer club before fleeing Syria, SNYMI youth mentor and case manager, Hsain Al-Shihabi, helped make it happen. The team placed second in its league in its first year of play and took home top spot in its second year, 2019 (photo).

For Samia, access to a Somali mental health counsellor was imperative for reasons both cultural and linguistic. “The thing with the Somali community is that mental health is stigmatized. It's not spoken of. When it comes to the Somali language, we don't even have the vocabulary to talk about mental health. Those words don't even exist in the language,” Samia said. “The community not recognizing mental health and how that can affect the day-to-day has been one of the biggest challenges. So it's about breaking that down and bringing awareness,” she added. 

Samia shared the story of one of her clients, a teen who was experiencing extreme anxiety with panic attacks worsened by the isolation of the pandemic. “It was a challenge to explain to this parent what these symptoms could be, that this is not just ‘being in a mood’,” Samia said. Bringing the Somali mental health counsellor into the conversation, she was able to help her client and her client’s mother: “Now, [my client] has strategies and coping mechanisms, she's able to recognize her triggers. And [her mother] also understands [her daughter’s] emotions and feelings, that this is a mental health challenge that her daughter can deal with and move on with her life.” 

Youth women emerge as leaders 

The pair approach to mentoring has been instrumental in growing participation among young women as has the partnership with TDSB’s LEAP program and the work the youth themselves have done to spread awareness of SNYMI.  


SNYMI mentee Amena is pursuing a nursing degree.

This shift in the make-up of the program’s clientele has brought a sharper focus to educational and career goals. SNYMI mentors have worked with the youth and with school guidance counselors to create educational plans, which emerged as particularly important to the young women mentees. “I would say that the component of working with young women in the program has been one of the biggest highlights,” said Sarah-Lee. “Twelve young women [have so far] made it to university and in the programs that they wanted, and we're talking youth that didn't speak a word of English before,” she added. These students have gone on to enrol in nursing, life sciences, engineering, hairdressing, social service, interior design, dental hygiene, and early childhood education programs at post-secondary institutions in Toronto and beyond.

To meet youth’s requirements in the high-priority employment and career areas, the program added two employment counsellors in 2022, “one Arabic-speaking, one Somali-speaking. We're trying to do that wraparound support [so] when you come to the service, you can have all of these various needs met: mental health, employment, family supports,” said Sarah-Lee. She adds that the pair approach to peer mentoring plus the additional consulting services available to mentees “really gives that full balance to meeting various needs within these different communities.”

Building trust with youth

What is always top-of-mind for the SNYMI mentors is that the program exists to support young people who have experienced significant trauma: they’ve fled war, faced significant disruption to their education or careers, and arrived in Canada – often alone and with little or no knowledge of the language of culture.

“The youth that we work with are extremely vigilant. That complex trauma experience doesn’t allow them any flexibility when it comes to trust in others. So, our program has to be really low-barrier,” Hsain said, which is why the program does not set limits around how long it works with youth in terms of number of sessions, length of sessions, or length of engagement.

“The people who get referred to us are people for whom their parents or the school system or the community centre have run out of ideas on how to support or because they don’t feel safe connecting with other programs,” Hsain said.

Hsain shared an experience of one of the first clients he worked with who had initially refused to meet with him. “In the first five minutes, he looked me up and down and then he was just yelling at me. Anger, spit, yelling you know? And I know exactly what's going on. I'm not personally being attacked, but this is the level of pain he has, [the distrust] about people who want to help him, about what has happened to him since he came to Canada, or the promise he was given and what he found instead,” Hsain said. Hsain listened, validated the teen’s emotions and experience, and then asked the youth if he wanted to keep talking, “and then we went for a walk in a field and that was the beginning of that mentorship.”

“The people who get referred to us are people for whom their parents or the school system or the community centre have run out of ideas on how to support or they don’t feel safe connecting with other programs. So, our program has to be really low-barrier.”
Hsain Al-Shihabi

Listening, showing up, and not giving up

These trauma-driven behaviours, while understood by the project’s staff, also often intersect with their own lived experiences. “Our role is to listen and be true to ourselves as people and that's really hard,” Hsain said. Doing this work means that the mentors must confront and understand their own experiences and emotions, remaining open and flexible while knowing “we are also human, and we will mess up and we just have to be accountable and model that,” Hsain said.

“You just have to keep showing up for somebody. And that's how they start to feel better about themselves. That's what you did with me.”
SNYMI mentee
It’s vitally important that the mentors have adequate training to practise within a trauma-informed framework and also have access to mental health support for themselves, given that “they're working so closely with people who have had experiences like their own. That's really hard on its own and [the risk of] vicarious trauma, or secondary traumatic stress is even higher,” Sarah-Lee said. SNYMI offers comprehensive professional development to its mentors, and also the support of a consulting mental health counsellor, who works with them on challenging cases and is available to support their own mental health needs. This capacity-building enables the youth mentors to fully show up for their mentees, and role model healthy behaviours and boundaries.

Opening doors to opportunities and choices

Hsain knows that the concrete supports he offers – access to resources, help navigating the healthcare, legal, employment, and other systems needed by newcomers – is essential and measurable. But with increasing frequency, he is hearing from clients about how they have integrated the less tangible benefits and learnings they’ve gained through the project – like patience, emotional regulation, presence, and boundary setting.

Hsain spoke about a recent experience with the same client who had previously refused to work with him: “About a month or two ago, he was telling me how he had been supporting a friend. I'm like, ‘that's amazing, you've been really supportive and understanding and you normally don't take s—t from people like this’,” Hsain told him. Hsain reported that his client went on to say “you can't just give up on somebody the first time they f— up or even if they keep f—ing up. How many times did you continue to show up for me? I haven't been the best person. I haven't shown the greatest kindness to you. You just have to keep showing up for somebody. And that's how they start to feel better about themselves. That's what you did with me.”

Hsain summed up the project’s power as its ability to allow people “to reintroduce themselves every day, every moment. If you acted in a certain way, in a certain moment, that doesn't mean that's who you are. Nobody's static, that doesn't exist. Everybody is dynamic, and we just need to open up opportunities for people to move themselves in any direction they choose. Without that space, that choice is not as accessible.”

The Opening Doors Project creates that space, opens up those choices, and has helped hundreds of Syrian and Somali youth build new lives and new connections with their mentors, each other, and their new community in Canada.

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