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Helping young refugees transition, Mazen El-Baba, MA'17

Refugee children from Syria might not think that they have a lot to teach others. Mazen El-Baba, MA’17 thinks differently. The recent master’s program graduate is using his passion for research and his commitment to the community to better understand the effects of adverse experiences on children’s mental wellbeing and decision making.

El-Baba recently started Camp H.appi in Toronto to help refugee children transition into Canadian society. Now with a second camp in London, El-Baba is using experience as a researcher to provide his campers with the best experience possible. 

Children at Camp H.appi do a variety of activities from physical education to drama that are designed to expose them to Canadian cultures and values, and build individual competencies, while also giving the children a chance to have fun. A program called Stand up and Be Heard teaches the children how to express themselves effectively while also building their public speaking abilities.

“This program is great because it lets them practice their English language skills without having to feel self-conscious because everyone is on the same level,” explained El-Baba.

Recently, a study authored by PhD student Niki Kamkar and Psychology professor J. Bruce Morton, entitled Ventral striatal activity links adversity and reward processing in children, has shown that pre-teens who experienced more challenging times in their lives tend to become more impulsive in their decision-making later in life.

“The evidence that links adversity and impulsivity has allowed us to implement systems into the camp that help the children understand how to make a decision, such as critical thinking and conflict resolution skills,” said El-Baba.

The researchers from the Morton Lab also learned that children who have had adverse experiences learn best from rewards. This finding has also been incorporated into this year’s camp programs.

“We’re not just running a regular summer camp. We’re trying to make it as effective as possible by collecting data to get an empirical measure of our impact,” said El-Baba.

This year, the Morton Lab is hoping to study the effects of bilingualism on decision making. These studies provide the evidence needed to make the camp, and programs like it, more effective.

“Evidence based practices ensure that what you are doing is effective,” explained El-Baba. “For example, this year we are doing a pre and post measure of how the children are feeling emotionally. That will tell us whether the programs we are doing are helping the children to feel better.”

While El-Baba has combined the camp with his academic interest in how socio-economic and language factors influence decision making, he says that Camp H.appi is not strictly an academic pursuit.

“This is not meant to be an academic endeavor for me. This is a community project that I like to do on the side. It’s something I’m passionate about and want to continually pursue,” said the camp organizer.

El-Baba sees a real need for the service his camp provides to the community and is hoping to expand Camp H.appi to more Canadian cities and eventually to Lebanon. His goal is to make the experience of entering Canadian society less difficult for these children and build their confidence in anticipation of the school year in September.

For more information about Camp H.appi visit their website.