COSTI’s Newcomer Wellness Program


AUDIENCE   Settlement, social and health services providers

POPULATION OF INTEREST   The Yazidi community and all immigrant and refugee populations

LOCATION   Greater Toronto Area

THE NEED   In November 2018, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration identified that the experience of persecution, genocide and sexual violence have left many Yazidi women and children with severe posttraumatic stress disorder. Additionally, the common language of communication with Yazidis is Arabic (as service providers who speak Kurmanji are not widely available). This triggered many of the Yazidi refugees as it is the language of their captors and oppressors.

WHAT'S PROMISING   COSTI’s innovative engagement strategies based on cultural humility and stakeholder engagement helped to identify traditional, communal and faith-based approaches to deal with the emotional distress of the horrific and traumatic events experienced by the Yazidi people.


The importance of basing decisions on the needs of the community being served is at the foundation of COSTI’s model. This service model acknowledges the resilience inherent in all newcomers and recognizes the importance of working with allied stakeholders to remove barriers and learn how traditional cultural practices of healing improve the wellbeing of newcomer populations. Specific approaches or takeaways for working with Yazidis include:

  • Working from a strengths or assets-based approach as would be done with all newcomers, regardless of pre-migration experience. This type of approach builds newcomers’ own strengths, emphasizing their resourcefulness and resilience; changing the mindset to being survivors rather than victims.
  • Providing opportunities and time to mourn the loss of their family, community, homeland.
  • Using female service providers since they are seen as safe; survivors were traumatized by their experience as ‘sex slaves’.
  • Allowing a slow process of resettlement to accommodate posttraumatic stress disorder.

Many of the staff hired at COSTI speak languages that reflect the newcomers they serve, Arabic, Farsi and Urdu and have cultural knowledge of how to engage and work with newcomers. Staff are aware and understand how stigma associated with mental health and emotional distress influence help seeking behaviours, so providing services with scheduling flexibility and in non-threatening, safe places help to increase participation.

However, serving the Yazidi community presented new challenges for COSTI staff. They had little knowledge of the customs, culture and spiritual practices of Yazidis. To overcome some of these challenges staff gathered information and consulted researchers at York University. Meeting their language needs was extremely challenging, there was only one known interpreter who spoke Kurmanji.

Many of the Yazidis had suffered horrible and tragic traumatic experiences, having lost children and partners in the most unspeakable ways. The majority of Yazidi community was made up of women with young female children. Most of the children had not attended school and had never been in a structured school setting. COSTI social workers and psychiatrists worked together with settlement, resettlement assistance programs, client support services workers and volunteers to find housing, and ensure basic needs were met before they could address the mental health distress caused by displacement, loss and trauma.

A network of agencies commissioned to deliver services and support the resettlement of the Yazidi people came together to discuss how to engage and increase access to services.

Many of the Yazidi were not familiar with traditional western based interventions to treat mental distress and declined many of the services.

Meeting regularly with all the agencies allowed for innovative approaches. All community agencies involved felt that the best approach would be to listen and ask the Yazidi people what they needed as opposed to referring individuals to services that were unfamiliar.

One of the alternative practices that COSTI recognized as helpful was that Yazidis drew on support from each other while they built trusting relationships with counsellors. Together the community of agencies found space for the Yazidi community to meet, connect, practice their faith and share a meal. No facilitator was necessary to guide the discussions. Providing the Yazidi women an opportunity to meet regularly in a safe place, share their stories and build relationships became the healing tool they needed.

The Yazidi community began to trust the many staff and organizations providing support, and as we know trust is a key principle in the healing journey from trauma. Currently, COSTI is working closely with the York Region School Board to support Yazidi families and children.

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