Program teaches students how to improve refugee settlement experiences

A York University certificate program aimed at training front-line workers who deal with refugees has graduated its first cohort of students and is already showing promising results. 

The Certificate in Refugee & Forced Migration Issues Program, run out of the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies and the Centre for Refugee Studies, teaches students how they can improve the settlement experience of refugees and newcomers to Canada. It aims to better their knowledge of national and international immigration policies, and to teach them how to address the emotional and psychosocial needs of clients of varying cultural backgrounds. Everyday issues such as how to access benefits and navigate online government services are also tackled.

“Working in this setting, you are dealing with people who have lost everything. We need to be able to give them the tools to start their lives over,” says Luis Alberto Mata, who graduated with the program’s first class at the end of March. After completing the course, Mata landed a job as a settlement and employment counsellor at the Mennonite New Life Centre of Toronto. He helps newcomers, immigrants and refugees to access health benefits and housing, provides job search guidance, and assists with applications for citizenship and residence.

Mata, who has extensive experience working with internally displaced people in his native Colombia, says the course enabled him to put his skills to work within a Canadian context.

“The knowledge I obtained was very valuable,” he says. “I not only upgraded my skills – I was also able to network with settlement workers and agencies. This course really pulled everything together for me.”

The program was developed with a flexible format in mind so that those working full time in the sector could access it, according to Victoria Caparello, acting director of York’s Division of Continuing Education.

“This program has proven to be pivotal in providing a Canadian context for those who are currently working with not-for-profit and government organizations dealing with refugee issues and settlement programs both nationally and internationally,” Caparello says.

York was also able to offer subsidies of up to $500 per student for those who were otherwise not eligible for other tuition subsidies.

The certificate consists of three components:

  • International Conventions & Canadian Legislation provides participants with an overview of the Canadian refugee determination system as well as the international conventions and remedies applicable to refugees. Among the topics examined are refugee hearing and pre-removal risk assessment (PRRA) procedures, the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement, and special populations of refugee claimants (sexual minorities, claimants with disabilities, child claimants). It also looks at the broader role of various non-governmental organizations in refugee law and policy.
  • Settlement Theory & Practice deals with settlement policies adopted by the countries receiving refugees. Students review case studies and examine the history of different nations’ refugee policies in order to help understand the refugee experience and how it interrelates with Canadian refugee policies.
  • Trauma, Psychological and Psychosocial Issues and Vicarious Trauma critically examines concepts of emotional, psychological and social distress as they relate to the experience of newcomers. Students learn to identify trauma-specific reactions and help ameliorate them. Cross-cultural responses to traumatizing experiences are discussed, including the potential limitations of western psychology when dealing with newcomers from different cultures.

York’s Centre for Refugee Studies (CRS) is engaged in research on refugee issues. It informs public discussion as well as policy development and practice innovation by international, governmental, advocacy and service organizations and it supports teaching in refugee and migration studies. As part of its commitment to strengthening the capacity of front-line workers in providing services to refugees, it currently runs a number of professional development programs, including the CRS Summer Course on Refugee & Forced Migration Issues. Efforts are currently underway to launch an online distance education program that would make the program available to settlement workers outside the GTA area.