By Sam Cortes, Communications Coordinator
The Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM) strives to empower newcomer families to integrate into the wider community through affordable transitional housing, programs, and services. From offering onsite housing to activity programs for kids, IRCOM’s goal is to create a community and help newcomers feel at home in Canada.
Betlhem Kassa, or Betty, is the newcomer girls sport coordinator at IRCOM. It’s a partner program that’s funded through Canadian Heritage and aimed at studying how being introduced to sport at a young age may affect girls’ lives in the future. As part of this partnership, IRCOM introduced a yoga program for girls aged six to 10.
Because most of the families are low-income, IRCOM programs rely on partners like Sport Manitoba, who provide free space and access to resources like yoga instructors. The program also uses school buses to transport the girls, so it relieves pressure on the parents and reduces barriers to participate.
Clearing the Mind, Moving the Body
“I’m a newcomer and I had never played a sport in my life until I came here,” Betty says. “It can be hard to get support from your family to try a sport when you’re new and don’t know what the sport is. But here, the families live right upstairs so it’s easy for them to come talk to us and get their questions answered.”
Sports programs like this yoga one grew out of similar programs that have run for soccer, basketball, volleyball, hockey and baseball. IRCOM was asked to try a new sport outside of those five core sports to help measure the success of the program in building confidence.
The programs are also structured around the importance of creating awareness among newcomers about the benefits of sports and gaining support from the girls’ parents to try physical fitness.
“In the newcomer community, we don’t really talk about mental health or have a clear understanding of what it is and why it’s important,” says Betty. “So when the researchers suggested yoga as a sport option, I connected with that because I wanted the girls to learn and build a habit of meditation to help clear their mind and also move their body.”
Building a Foundation For Lifelong Fitness
Another benefit of yoga is that when the girls grow out of the program, it’s a sport they can continue at home as it requires little to no equipment. The program has also been motivating for the girls because when they see their friends doing a new pose it makes them want to do it as well. Betty says she remembers helping one of the girls with a new pose going through it step by step. By the end of the class, she had it mastered, constantly wanting to show it off to her and the yoga instructor.
“It’s always fun to see that because it really shows they’re building their confidence and getting comfortable around people outside of their own family. There’s a real sense of belonging in class and the girls are forming real friendships with each other.”
Programs like these not only helps the girls get out of their comfort zone, but also help to improve their flexibility. Yoga is an individual sport, which means the girls get to decide for themselves what they get out of it – anything from helping clear their mind, to just learning how to stretch.
Making Friends and Having Fun
The yoga program has been running since April 2023 and the girls go to yoga class every second Friday on a drop-in basis. To provide a bit of structure to class, the instructor generally sets up a whiteboard with a list of things the girls are going to do that day. When each item is done, one of the girls gets to go up and check it off the list. Once the list is complete, the girls get time to practice what they’ve learned or go into their favourite poses and show what they really like.
“It’s a great exchange-based learning opportunity. Newcomers get to learn about new things and also get to share knowledge from their culture as well,” says Betty. “It really helps build community and now that the girls have tried yoga they’re more eager to try other sports as well.”
She also says she thinks the program is so successful because it’s just for girls. Often with sports with boys involved, it tends to be more of a competitive atmosphere, whereas this yoga program for girls is more centered on making friends and having fun. The goal is to create a positive experience and help the girls build connections with each other.
“We always want to do things as a kid but if our parents don’t believe in it or can’t afford it then we won’t. Also when they get to school and other kids already know these sports it can be intimidating and make them not want to try the sport,” says Betty. “So to be able to offer accessible programs at this young age encourages the girls to try new things without pressure or expectations which builds their confidence in trying new things outside these programs and hopefully creates a positive relationship with sport and fitness for life.”