Students at BC Newcomer Camp
March 2, 2020
4 mins read

Turning passion into progress: BC Newcomer Camp

In 2016, media coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis made a marked impression on UBC students Duncan Bernardo and Dakota Koch. 

I had the opportunity to speak with Duncan about BC Newcomer Camp, the charity he and Dakota formed to support refugees coming to the Vancouver area. 

“We just wanted to do something to help all the families coming here,” Duncan tells me. 

Starting BC Newcomer Camp

Understanding the difficulty of moving to another country without being able to speak the language, Duncan and Dakota began researching what life was like for recent refugees in the Vancouver area. Due to the influx of refugees at the time, many families were living in motels—the children forced to play on the streets. 

Duncan and Dakota quickly realized that there was no summer programming for refugee children, and decided to fill the gap themselves, despite only being first-year UBC students without much experience working for non-profits.

“At the start, it was tough,” Duncan says. “I would describe it as like running into a brick wall, over and over and over again until it finally cracked.” 

Duncan and Dakota had to reach out to over 80 organizations to get the camp started. Eventually they secured funding and were able to open their first camp for 20 children in the summer of 2016. Originally conceived of as a sports camp, the idea for the BC Newcomer Camp rapidly developed to also include English lessons to help refugee children adjust to life in Canada. 

It ended up having a huge impact.

“We were pretty surprised, to be honest,” Duncan says. “At the beginning of the camp, the children were only able to say a few words in English, but by the end they could hold a conversation and express themselves!"

The success of the first year of the camp led Duncan and Dakota to begin the arduous process of registering it as a charity and getting a Canada Summer Jobs Grant to hire staff. Over the next few years, the charity grew and now operates 2 locations, one in Vancouver and one in Surrey, with 30 children in each camp. 

A student BC Newcomer Camp is studying

The camp is completely free, and provides campers with lunch and bus tickets for transportation. English lessons are offered in the morning, and they play sports and other playground games in the afternoon. Participants are usually referred to the camp through organizations like MOSAIC and Immigrant Services Society of BC.

“A lot of [the kids] have been in refugee camps for most of their lives. And they'll tell us it's the most fun they've ever had,” Duncan says. “This year, one kid said that it was the first time they had ever had fun.” 

Running the charity as students

Duncan and Dakota have run the organization while continuing to study at UBC. Now in his final year, Duncan is not only involved with the charity, but also works at a start-up, has another part-time job on the weekends, is a member of a fraternity, and still finds time to hit the gym.

Duncan and Dakota working on their charity

It’s hard to imagine balancing all of those commitments as well as running a charity, but Duncan says the process has been worth it.

“I’ve learned an incredible amount,” he explains. “Besides concrete skills like grant writing, I’ve had to learn about leading people, and managing them.”

These are skills Duncan hopes to apply throughout his career, especially since he’s cultivated a passion for entrepreneurship during his time at UBC. 

Refugees in Canada

A significant portion of Duncan’s time with BC Newcomer Camp is taken up by fundraising. In the beginning it was easier to raise funds due to high public interest and awareness of the refugee crisis. Since then, it has become more difficult to attract new and repeat donors. 

Canada took in 28,100 refugees in 2018. This represents an increase in numbers that can put mild strain on housing and other resources, where organizations like the BC Newcomer Camp can come in and provide assistance. 

However, it should be noted that countries like Canada actually bear only a fraction of the global population of displaced people. Millions of people flee conflict and persecution in their home nations every year.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as of June 2019 there were 25.9 million refugees around the world. They were hosted in states like Turkey, with 3.7 million people, Pakistan, with 1.4 million, and Uganda with 1.2 million. 

BC Newcomer Camp recognizes that coming to any new country as a refugee is difficult, and aims to help make young refugees’ transition to life here as welcoming as possible and raise awareness of Canada’s refugee population—even when it’s not as heavily featured in the media.

Get involved

Logo of the BC Newcomer Camp

Programs like the BC Newcomer Camp can have a huge impact, and there’s room to get involved. The charity recruits volunteers year round for a variety of positions in fundraising, marketing, and education. If you’re looking for a place to gain new skills, get volunteer experience, and help welcome new members of our community to the Lower Mainland, visit the Camp’s site and click “Join Our Team” to find out more. 

If you’re interested in making a difference in your community, you don’t have to start by creating an entire charity—try beginning with volunteering. “I would say the coolest thing you could probably do is try to start something small, some sort of initiative within an organization,” Duncan tells me.

Wherever your passions take you, remember that it’s rare for one person to change the world—but they can change the world of one person.