Even though Merhawi couldn’t visit his second home during the COVID-19 lockdown, he always knew that support was there.
“I felt very sad and alone, leaving my friends and my program, where I could always go for emotional and academic support,” said Merhawi. “I was really scared that I would feel alone and isolated like I did when I first came to Canada. But the Peaceful Village did not let me down and found ways to help me even when we were not able to be together physically.”
Merhawi moved to Winnipeg from Sudan with his parents and three siblings four years ago.
“My dad had a hard life,” Merhawi said. “He worked day and night and wanted a better life and education for his kids.”
Merhawi was in Grade 9 when he learned about the Peaceful Village program, an after-school program for youth, particularly newcomer youth and their families.
Facilitated by the Manitoba School Improvement Program (MSIP), which is supported by United Way Winnipeg donors, the Peaceful Village program provides youth opportunities to receive academic support, enjoy snacks, have fun with friends, and participate in various activities. Six sites run the Peaceful Village program in Winnipeg. Merhawi attended the program at Glenlawn Collegiate, four times a week, from 4-7 p.m.
“Before the Peaceful Village program, I didn’t have any friends, and I needed help with my homework,” said Merhawi. “I met so many people, and everyone was so helpful. After school was over, I would just run to the Peaceful Village.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, staff at the Peaceful Village program found creative, virtual solutions to help kids.
“Miss Christina Beyene, Team Leader and Community Liaison began hosting something called the ‘Wellness Wednesday Workshop,’ where we could talk about our fears and worries and learn to be happy again,” he said. “Even though we were not physically together, it felt like we are not far apart because we had the support of people who care about us and are there to help us.”
This past spring, when Merhawi was preparing to graduate high school, he had concerns about planning for his future.
“I am the first person in my family who will be attending a post-secondary institution in Canada, and I was unsure about the schools or programs that were available or even how to apply,” he said. “The Peaceful Village program set up virtual presentations from all the schools where we could get information and ask questions to become familiar with the programs before graduation.”
Merhawi, now graduated, is looking forward to attending university to pursue a career in criminal justice. He is also a staff member at Peaceful Village and helps run a boys’ club twice a week. Though the club wasn’t able to meet throughout the pandemic, they connected virtually through Zoom calls and are now arranging one-on-one get-togethers.
“I like to call them ‘my kids’,” said Merhawi. “A lot of the kids come from other countries and like me when I first came, they don’t know a lot of people. They open up to me; it makes me happy.”
Merhawi also helped prepare snacks for the 70 kids in the program.
“We’d make snacks that were easy to prepare, like poutine and perogies,” he said. “First there’s study, then snacks, and then playtime. They could play on the PS4 or use the gym or the soccer field.”
Merhawi said the Peaceful Village program really is like a second home for him and many of the kids.
“I think it’s the number one place for kids to come when they’re new to Canada,” he said. “It’s a great place to start.”
He said he could see how some of the kids might be drawn to risky behaviour without a support network.
“I even felt I could have fallen on the wrong side,” said Merhawi. “When you’re new and don’t have any friends, what can you do after school? So, come to the Peaceful Village – they will help you.”
Peaceful Village locations
- Gordon Bell High School
- Hugh John MacDonald
- Community Site at 1008 Wall Street
- Glenlawn Collegiate
- Fort Richmond Collegiate & Acadia Junior High
- James Collegiate & George Waters Middle School