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June 18, 2018

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The Wilfrid Laurier University community is known for giving back, with students, faculty and staff deeply rooted in local communities.

Abdelfettah Elkchirid, a social worker by practice and assistant professor with Laurier’s Faculty of Social Work, has been recognized for his contributions to strengthen the community by helping refugees.

Elkchirid is a pillar for refugee support services in the Waterloo Region. In recognition of his work, he was presented with an Award of Distinction by World Refugee Day of Waterloo Region.

“I am honoured to be recognized. This means I am doing meaningful work. But even more so, this award is a testament to how our community is recognizing those who are helping refugees in the first place,” says Elkchirid. “It proves how our community understands the value of my work and the important and substantial need of refugee supports. This in itself is worth celebrating.”

Elkchirid was presented with the award in early June at the World Refugee Day Waterloo Region awards celebration held at THEMUSEUM in Kitchener. The celebration was part of a month-long series of events to celebrate the United Nations’ World Refugee Day and the Region’s rich history of offering refuge to people fleeing their home countries.

Word Refugee Day Waterloo Region events are organized in partnership by the Immigration Partnership Waterloo Region and Community Coalition on Refugee and Immigrant Concerns.

Ambition to Help Refugees

With previous work experience helping refugees in the U.S., and when he was looking to advance his career, Elkchirid sought work at a university with a strong social work program and a community with non-profit organizations working to help refugees. Elkchirid found Laurier and the Muslim Social Services Kitchener Waterloo and was sold. In 2015, he started teaching students in Laurier’s Bachelor of Social Work program at the Brantford campus.

Elkchirid quickly became a volunteer embedded in the refugee community. And his ongoing commitment is making an impact.

Elkchirid is a volunteer board member for Muslim Social Services, a local non-profit dedicated to supporting refugees in the area. With the organization’s support, he developed and co-leads a support group for male Syrian refugees. Without a social network and with little ability to speak English, these refugees are in need of a helping hand.

“I facilitate a support group where male refugees meet one another, engage with the community and learn from and teach one another. They feel empowered to take care of their needs, together. And through this experience, they contribute to our community, feeling a sense of self worth and empowerment,” says Elkchirid.

Elkchirid also works closely with local Islamic schools, including the Islamic Centre of Cambridge.

“Following the Quebec City mosque shooting in January 2017, the Muslim community in the region was concerned and fearful. I provided guidance to teachers at the International School of Cambridge on how to discuss violence with students in an age-appropriate way,” says Elkchirid.

Elkchirid also offers clinical supervision and consultation to the Healing Through Art program offered by Muslim Social Services for refugee Syrian youth.

Elkchirid developed a guide (in Arabic) for refugee Syrian parents, advising them of the necessity to monitor their children’s online activities.

As part of his social work practice, Elkchirid works closely with Reception House Waterloo Region to serve survivors of torture and conflict.

Engaging Students in Passionate Work

Elkchirid’s social work practice, community work and instruction at the Faculty of Social Work are all intertwined.

“I experience the best of both worlds. I’m an educator who continues to practice social work in the community,” says Elkchirid.

With his clinical background, he prefers teaching hands-on courses, and his practice almost always enters the classroom. Elkchirid presents real-world cases in the classroom to get students involved.

“I always bring my practice and my community involvement into my teaching, through case studies, case scenarios and even active involvement. I currently have a student who’s completing research in the community,” says Elkchirid.

By learning through direct experience with the refugee community, students are able to materialize class content and apply course concepts.

“Students become more aware, sensitive to refugee needs and they even start advocating for better services and more appropriate supports,” says Elkchirid.

Driven by Lack of Services

Elkchirid dedicates his life’s work to refugees as he says this group lives in the shadow of immigrants.

Refugees are not immigrants. But social services often pair these two groups of newcomers together.

“Refugees are a special subset of newcomers, as they’re in more precarious situations and have specific challenges,” says Elkchirid. “Yet they’re often served by immigrant services that don’t meet their needs.”

Elkchirid hopes this changes over time and says the Waterloo Region is making strides in the right direction.

“Many organizations in the Waterloo Region, including Muslim Social Services and Reception House, quickly put refugee-specific programs in place to respond to the growing need of refugee supports. What we have today is not ideal, but it’s by far a positive response to the Syrian refugee crisis,” says Elkchirid.

With refugees regularly making headlines in the media and as the number of people forced to flee their homes is rising, educating others about refugees is crucial and stereotypes need to be dismantled. When most people think of refugees, what comes to mind is a family fleeing violence, running for their lives.

“But what we don’t consider is how resilient and strong refugees are. Despite everything they have faced, they truly believe their lives will get better. When they seek help, they show us how strong they are. This is inspiring to us as volunteers,” says Elkchirid. “Their stories are moving and their resilience gives us hope.”

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