Afghan refugees exit quarantine, play with other kids for 1st time since arriving in Edmonton

Click to play video: 'Dozens of Afghan refugee children finally free to play with peers in Edmonton'
Dozens of Afghan refugee children finally free to play with peers in Edmonton
After nearly a year of distress, hiding and general upheaval, dozens of young Afghan refugees were released from their Edmonton hotel quarantine and into a local soccer centre. Dan Grummett reports – Jan 26, 2022

For the first time since arriving in Edmonton, a group of Afghan refugee children exited quarantine and had the chance to run, play and interact with other kids, after spending months in hiding.

A group of 170 refugees — dozens of whom are human rights workers — arrived in Edmonton from Calgary on Friday, Jan. 14. They’ve been in COVID-19 quarantine ever since.

Tuesday was their first day out of quarantine and on Wednesday, many of the kids were bused to the soccer centre in east Edmonton for a chance to participate in free sport.

“They were just really excited to be able to go somewhere,” said Sharon Yeo, director of immigration and settlement services with Catholic Social Services.

Story continues below advertisement

CSS welcomed the government-assisted refugees when they arrived in the city and is working with the families to support their transition to life in Canada. That includes introducing them to popular Canadian group sports.

The kids aged five-17 will play soccer, basketball, football and hockey. They will continue taking part in Free Play for Kids for the next couple of weeks.

“They’ve been living under a lot of anxiety, a lot of tension, a lot of danger. And so once they’ve arrived in Canada and they have that sense of relief that they’re able to start anew, the kids are able to have that freedom to play,” Yeo said. “Where, when they’re in a refugee camp or where they’re in hiding in the country that they’re in, they don’t have that.

“For these parents, to be able to have their kids come here in a safe place to be able to play for the first time in months, if not years, is just something you can’t put a value on.”

Story continues below advertisement

CSS partnered with Free Play for Kids, which aims to break down barriers when it comes to accessing sport.

Breaking news from Canada and around the world sent to your email, as it happens.

“In between their quarantine period and transition to permanent housing, there’s a pretty big dead space where there’s not a lot for them to do,” said Brandon Brock, operations manager with Free Play For Kids.

“They’re not in school yet, they don’t have a lot of structure in their lives. So this is a great opportunity for the kids to come here, play and get little benefits like your daily physical activity.”

The refugees fled Afghanistan during the Taliban uprising in August 2021 and had been in hiding until earlier this month, when a flight could be booked, CSS said. About 40 per cent of the group of 170 are kids.

Adjusting to their new lives can be challenging, but Brock said sport can be an easy ice-breaker because they’re it’s a “universal language.”

“You don’t need to speak each other’s languages in order to play with each other and I think that’s why play is such a great way of integrating kids into the program,” he said. “The more that people can create spaces that are safe, welcoming, supportive — where kids can come play, learn and grow — the better our future is going to be.”

Story continues below advertisement

The time is beneficial for the adults, as well. While the children play, CSS settlement workers sit with the parents to complete important settlement tasks, including setting up bank accounts, securing housing and receiving career counselling.

“Our role is really to help bridge them to their new life in Canada,” Yeo said.

“The hotel facilities are wonderful for a place to sleep and a place to eat, but it’s not really set up for a place to play. And if you can imagine being a kid and you just moved to a new country, you want to play. You want to explore the community, you want to see all of what your new city has to offer and bringing them to a site like this where they can just express themselves and have the space and the freedom to explore different things, is really what we want to be able to give those kids.”

Over the next few weeks, CSC will help the 45 families learn set up bank accounts, learn about managing finances, learn about the different neighbourhoods in Edmonton and help them secure housing. The kids will also be enrolled in school.

Story continues below advertisement

The Liberal government initially committed to resettling 20,000 Afghan refugees but upped that pledge during the federal election campaign to 40,000. Edmonton is expected to welcome more Afghan refugees in the coming months.

– with files from Global News’ Emily Mertz

Sponsored content