With influx of people from Ukraine, Winnipeg organization that helps youth settle here busier than ever: CEO

It’s a Tuesday morning, and 13 students aged 14 to 17 are gathered in a classroom on Notre Dame Avenue in Winnipeg.

They come from Ukraine, Afghanistan and Syria.

In this lesson, they’re learning about conflict resolution and answering questions about the meaning of words like “freedom,” “security” and “fun.”

While this looks like a typical high school class, it’s not. 

These students are part of a program aimed at helping them get ready to start school in Canada. 

“I learned so many things and [it] all was exciting for me because it’s new,” said Ali Akbari, 17, who is from Afghanistan and recently landed in Winnipeg. “New system, new government, new society — it’s all good things for me.” 

The class is part of the introduction to Canadian education program run by Newcomers Employment and Education Development Services Inc, or NEEDS.

These three students are among those taking the introduction to Canadian education program run by NEEDS. (Alana Cole/CBC)

It’s just one of a number of programs and services offered at NEEDS – a non-profit organization in Winnipeg that helps immigrant and refugee kids, youth and their families get settled in Canada. 

This year, they’re busier than ever, says the organization’s chief executive officer.

“This scale we never had,” said Margaret von Lau. “This is the biggest challenge for us in our career.”

In a typical year, NEEDS works with roughly 2,200 clients, including young people and their family members, said von Lau. In the first six months of this fiscal year, that number is already at about 2,700, she said. 

Many of the current clients have just arrived, while others have been in Canada longer.

A smiling woman stands in front of a wall painted with a Canadian flag and a green circle with the word "Education" inside.
Margaret von Lau is the chief executive officer at NEEDS. She says in a typical year, the organization works with roughly 2,200 clients. In the first six months of this fiscal year, that number has already reached about 2,700, she said. (Alana Cole/CBC)

According to von Lau, the majority of new clients are from Ukraine. 

While NEEDS supports war-affected families from other parts of the world, she believes part of the reason the organization is seeing a big increase right now is because of the number of Ukrainians choosing to come to Manitoba, due to its large Ukrainian population. 

NEEDS said four new staff members have recently been hired to support clients. 

The introduction to Canadian education program is currently running five classes a day, Monday through Thursday.

A smiling woman stands at a desk, with a large screen showing a presentation behind her.
Junella Ondo teaches the introduction to Canadian education program. (Alana Cole/CBC)

Typically at this time of year, they’d only be running two or three, said Alejandra Cano, a service delivery manager at NEEDS.

Three of the classes are running at their site and two are operating out of a temporary residence site, she said.

“It is quite busy,” said Cano. “We are seeing a lot of new arrivals, a lot of new families continuing to arrive, so we are just trying to meet the needs the best we can.” 

Students typically take part in the introduction to Canadian education program while their families get settled in a new home and they’re registered in school, Cano said.

Two young girls in pink sweatshirts sit beside each other at a table, reading picture books.
Sisters Marilyn, 11, and Melanie El Hage, 8, are originally from Ukraine. They arrived in Winnipeg nearly two months ago. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

The program offers language support and helps students learn about education, community, safety and health.

It also helps them build connections, she said. 

“When they come in, they’re quite nervous — everything is so new, and then [when they start] making connections in class, you really see that sense of comfort and a bit of ease before they do go to school,” she said. 

Cano said once students are enrolled in school, they often continue to stay involved with other programming NEEDS offers, including after-school help and an employment program. 

“It’s nice coming to work sometimes and you see some employment clients, and they’re intro clients I had many, many years ago and they’re still connected with us… which is really, really nice to see,” she said. 

NEEDS is ‘quite busy,’ right now, said Alejandra Cano, a service delivery manager with the organization. (Alana Cole/CBC)

Von Lau said more funding from provincial and federal governments would help hire more staff, who she said are needed to help meet the demand. 

“We need to make sure that any child, any client will be getting the proper service,” she said. 

Seventeen-year-old Akbari isn’t sure what school he’ll be starting Grade 11 in yet. But he’s looking forward to studying computer sciences and starting his life in Canada. 

“I was so excited about Canada, and I love it,” he said.

“In Canada, there are many opportunities for us, everyone has equal rights, and Canada is a very beautiful [country] with brilliant landscapes.”

Students from Afghanistan, Ukraine share their feelings on Canada and hope for the future

2 hours ago

Duration 1:38

Ali Akbari, 17, who is originally from Afghanistan, and sisters Marilyn,11, and Melanie El Hage, 8, originally from Ukraine, share their feelings about Canada and their hopes for the future. All three students are taking part in the introduction to Canadian education program offered in Winnipeg by the non-profit NEEDS.

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