LONDON, ONT. -- Lina Saadeddin came to Canada from Dubai when she was 15 years old, and knows first hand the challenges of going to school in a new country.

“Even with the language barrier, everything was different, everything was different in Canada but there was still a lot of beauty in it.”

Knowing how stressful school can be for a newcomer Saadeddin joined a team of researchers at Western University who have coordinated with London's Muslim Resource Centre on a project that helps boost resilience and coping skills for children and youth new to the country.

“I wanted to create a safe space for the youth, newcomer youth, to share their stories and to learn more about what they can do in challenge situations and stressful situations,” she says.

The initiative is called STRONG and stands for Supporting Transition and Resilience for Newcomer Groups.

“The idea there was, let’s find a program that really can help build strength and resilience for newcomer students,” says Dr. Claire Crooks, director at the Centre for School Mental Health at Western. “We know they have lots of challenges but they do have lots of strength and resilience, so let’s build on that.”

Crooks says the STRONG program is more important now than ever with the new stresses of heading back to school in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, and all the new protocols within the schools.

“We’re thinking about people who have maybe been through a refugee experience, there are so many triggers with COVID and a pandemic that could bring back memories, having your movement restricted or having to line up for things,” says Crooks. “Even for parents who really value their kids' education but have literacy challenges, by adding online schooling.”

Saadeddin says so far she’s heard positive feedback from youth who have gotten resources from the program.

"Students actually tell us and tell the facilitator that, 'You know when I’m stressed, I go and do the relaxation exercises you told us about.' And that’s so rewarding.”

Crooks and her team have also been working on a mindfulness study to promote calmer, more caring classrooms during this stressful back to school time.

More about that study can be found here.