They may not have tried track and field, but a group of immigrant children have cleared a major hurdle when it comes to participating in sports.
Since last summer, the Syrian Canadian Sports Players have been a smash on the tennis court, made a splash paddling on Lochaber Lake and swimming in the pool at St. F.X.’s Alumni Aquatic Centre, and enjoyed a slam-dunk experience on ‘Coach K’ Court at the Oland Centre.
“I never had the chance to play sports until I came to Canada. This has been an amazing experience,” Shahed Almashhoud said.
The 15-year-old – a Grade 10 student at Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional High School – is now in her first season as a member of the Royals’ junior varsity basketball team.
“I am a good ball handler and I am really fast,” Shahed said, with a smile, when asked about her strongest skills on the court.
While watching a recent basketball training session, Dan and Ingrid Robinson – St. F.X. education department faculty members – reflected on the formation and development of the initiative, one that they spearheaded, along with Vanessa Currie.
“We knew we had this new Syrian community in town. We wanted to explore what prevented them from being active, while finding out what they were interested in,” Dan said, noting previous studies have explored what inhibited immigrant children, when it came to playing sports.
With their idea to form a sports program for young immigrants, they sought out funding , which came from the provincial government and St. F.X., along with “community partners,” such as Syria-Antigonish Families Embrace (SAFE).
“We wanted to get as many community partners involved as we could,” Dan noted.
Those partners have provided more than just a monetary boost; they have also provided their expertise in delivering sport skills sessions, including St. F.X. student-athletes.
“It has been great – a lot of people involved,” he said.
When it wraps up, the St. F.X. students – 20 to 25 of them – who have participated will make a presentation to partners about the inaugural initiative.
‘Whole lot of confidence’
After the planning process – once a week over a six-week period, the initiative launched on the tennis courts at Columbus Field in Antigonish.
“It has been awesome and I am so happy to be part of this group,” Nour Almashhoud, 14, said.
Although the Grade 8 student at Saint Andrew Junior School (SAJS) has enjoyed each sport experience, tennis tops the list as her favourite.
“It was freezing,” she said, with a laugh, recalling a late October canoeing trip on Lochaber Lake.
Taghrid Hadhad, a Grade 7 student at SAJS, who has lived in Antigonish for three years, also loved playing tennis.
“We have done a lot of fun stuff,” the 12-year-old said.
She also really likes playing basketball.
“I really love it and I am a good shooter,” Hadhad added.
Although it has varied since they started the program last summer, there has been, consistently, 10 or so immigrant participants. They have also been encouraged to bring friends along to join the fun.
“To be honest, we were always worried that they might not show up, but they have been here, faithfully, every week,” Ingrid said.
The youngsters chose the name for the group and helped design their team t-shirts, including the colours – red and white – along with the numbers emblazoned on their backs. They were also a key part of the planning process.
“I think some of them felt like outsiders in some sporting situations,” Dan said, noting that has changed greatly.
Ingrid added the participants have become more comfortable in settings, such as Oland Centre, describing a “sense that this is their place.”
“We have seen a whole lot of confidence and, I think, they feel more comfortable as members of their community,” Dan said.
The benefits for participants have been many – ones beyond gaining the ability to hit a free throw or paddle a canoe.
“We have made so many friends,” Sondos Eliman, 11, said.
The memories made have been countless.
“It has been so much fun,” the Grade 6 student at St. Andrews Consolidated School said, recalling one day she and her friend spent five or so hours at the pool, including the sports players’ session.
Maysam Alshilawi, a Grade 7 student at SAJS, also reflected on the friendships made.
“It has been amazing and I love it so much,” the 13-year-old said, noting playing basketball with friends at school is now a regular part of her routine.
Batoul Hadhad continues to play tennis with her classmates at Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional High School.
“It has been pretty awesome,” she said.
More to come
Members of the Syrian Canadian Sports Players share the wish other young newcomers to Antigonish will be able to enjoy the same experience.
“We have funding secured if we decide we want to do this again,” Dan said, adding it probably “won’t be a one-off.”
Noting he has done other community and research work, on a one-time basis, he said “but I don’t know how I can step away from this group of kids.”
“We have to continue to do something,” Dan added.