Two prominent conferences on refugee rights and newcomer youth held at Keele Campus

From left: Jaitra Sathy, Humaima Ashfaque and Edwar Dommar, pictured at the CCR International Conference
From left: Jaitra Sathy, Humaima Ashfaque and Edwar Dommar, pictured at the CCR International Conference (image: Arden Maalik)

York University’s Centre for Refugee Studies (CRS) hosted and co-sponsored the International Refugee Rights Conference with the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR). The conference took place June 5 to 9 on the Keele Campus.

CRS also co-hosted the CCR National Youth Action Gathering June 5 and 6 with York University’s local student Amnesty International and Keele Campus World University Service of Canada (WUSC) chapters. The University’s Syria Response and Refugee Initiative – a project of CRS funded by the Office of the Provost and Vice-President Academic and Osgoode Hall Law School – supported both events.

International Refugee Rights Conference, June 5 to 9 

More than 650 participants attended the international conference, which opened with a welcome from Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation Chief Stacey LaForme.

The Canadian Council for Refugees Conference Plenary that was held on June 9

The conference focused on enhancing the effectiveness of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in promoting the human rights of refugees and vulnerable migrants. Advocates, academics and others met face-to-face to learn from each other and strategize across borders, with the goal of ensuring refugee rights, including the voices of refugee and other migrants, and supporting them through services, advocacy and policy.

CRS Director Jennifer Hyndman and Michele Millard, CRS coordinator, served on the international organizing committee for the conference over the last year. Millard was very pleased with the conference and its outcomes.

“Given the current global climate and troubling policy directions we are seeing in many states, it was an honour for the CRS to host more than 650 participants from 36 countries for such important conversations about promoting and protecting the rights of refugees,” she said.

The conference infographic

Conference participants included representatives from NGOs, the academy, various levels of government, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), refugees and other vulnerable migrants. Special attention was given to representation from the Global South. This was the first such international conference held in Canada in 12 years. The last, also held at York University, took place in 2006 with 470 attendees. Due to overwhelming interest in this year’s event, organizers had to close registration in advance, which was the first time this has happened in the history of the conference.

“The Canadian Council for Refugees and its member organizations are at the forefront of refugee protection in Canada and were particularly well-placed to lead the dozens of workshops and networking sessions that took place here,” said Millard.

In addition to plenaries, the conference offered a networking lunch and strategizing sessions organized by the national organization. The local conference committee organized a dinner to celebrate the 40th anniversary of CCR, a welcome reception, as well as site visits for international participants to Toronto organizations working with refugees and vulnerable migrants.

Former Canadian Council for Refugees president and FCJ Refugee Centre Co-Director, Loly Rico, chaired the national and local organizing committees. The latter also included York University students Humaima Ashfaque, Cass De Freitas, Roshni Khemraj and Shae MacPherson, as well as CRS staff members Michele Millard and John Carlaw, who collaborated with 18 other local team members from prominent refugee and immigrant-serving organizations across the city.

Rico was pleased with the impressive coordination and networking demonstrated through the conference.

“The International Refugee Rights Conference was a major success which could not have been carried out without the tremendous contributions of our many partners and volunteers who came together to pull off an exceptional event,” said Rico.

“We know that the coordination and networking is just the beginning of a new conversation. But the seed has been planted and soon we will see some flourishing in the future as happened in the previous international conference. It was particularly exciting to see the prominent participation and leadership from youth, whose contributions made a big difference.”

Hyndman echoed Rico’s enthusiasm.

“The conference workshops and meetings offered participants very engaged modes of sharing knowledge and information,” she said. “I met lawyers from the U.S. and staff from refugee-serving agencies from Vancouver to the Malaysian peninsula who were amazed by the array sessions and diversity of actors engaging issues like detention and externalization, but also resettlement and integration.”

The National Youth Action Gathering, June 5 and 6

Prior to the International Refugee Rights Conference, an engaged team of student volunteers hosted the CCR’s Youth Network’s national Youth Action Gathering (YAG) with the help of student groups Amnesty International at York (AIY), World University Service of Canada Committee on Keele Campus, and CRS. More than 100 refugee and newcomer youth from across Canada attended the event, which took place June 5 and 6.

Participants came from seven provinces across the country, and 45 members of the group stayed to participate in the concurrent international conference.

For second-year York University student Edwar Dommar – a Syrian refugee who came to Canada almost two years ago – YAG was his first experience in national youth engagement on refugee and migration issues.

“I got involved in the YAG to share my personal experience with newcomers, illustrate the importance of knowing their rights as immigrants and refugees and how they can overcome the obstacles they confront,” said Dommar. “It is also an opportunity for me to network with participants from all over the country and meet amazing people.”

From left: Jaitra Sathy, Humaima Ashfaque and Edwar Dommar, pictured at the CCR International Conference (image: Arden Maalik)

Syria Response and Refugee Initiative (SRRI) project ambassador and global health student Humaima Ashfaque, also of Amnesty International at York and the CCR Youth Network, was the lead local organizer of YAG. She helped to recruit a highly dedicated local organizing team. The members – Cory Clarkson, Cassandra DeFreitas, Dommar, Robert Hanlon, Sahar Jafrani, Roshni Khemraj, Shaelen MacPherson, Aisha Saleem and Jaitra Sathy – met regularly to plan the local logistics of the event. Partway through conference planning, Sathy was hired (based on her skills in fundraising, media relations and conference organizing) to be the local coordinator of the larger international conference, while a dozen dedicated volunteers helped to carry out the event.

The YAG organizing team with volunteers

“The annual Youth Action Gathering (YAG) is an event for youth and organized by youth to equip themselves with the necessary tools to address the challenges they have to face in their daily life as newcomer youth, young refugees, and immigrants,” said Ashfaque, whoe also co-facilitated the “Paradox of Canadian Muslim Identity” workshop.

Ashfaque said the experience helped her to have more courage in embracing her identity.

“I found the courage to face inequalities, racism and discrimination,” she said. “I have been motivated to go beyond my capabilities and do more to help newcomer youth.”

Khemraj, who just graduated from political science and completed a one-year term as president of Amnesty International at York, will begin a law degree at Osgoode Hall Law School this fall. She found YAG to be a uniquely powerful opportunity for her to help mobilize a national network where young people can find their voice, share lived experiences and develop a strong sense of self-efficacy.

“It combines my passion of furthering human rights, giving a platform to those typically left out of policy discussions and highlighting the importance of youth engagement and empowerment,” said Khemraj.

John Carlaw, who is the project lead of York University’s Syria Response and Refugee Initiative, facilitated and supported the local team in hosting the event. Carlaw came away from the experience highly impressed by the York University students and national youth network members whose efforts drove the success of the gathering.

“Hosting this national youth gathering was a major undertaking, the culmination of months of work with our national partners at the CCR,” he said. “Once again our students have proven to be an incredible group of organizers and activists of whom the university should be very proud.”

Carlaw also paid tribute to the “incredible program the national core group of the Youth Network assembled,” and was key staff organizer from the CRS side.