On Sept. 21, 2016, after enduring the terror of the Syrian civil war, a year living as refugees in Turkey, and almost 27 hours of flying, Samah Motlaq, her husband, Talal, and their two young children touched down in the small lakeside community of Gander, Newfoundland, on the east coast of Canada.

An iceberg floats off the coast of Newfoundland. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.


Motlaq was unsure about leaving Turkey. She liked her life there, and her kids were finally settled after years of uncertainty and upheaval. But their family had friends in Gander who urged them to join them halfway across the world.

"Honestly, all I knew about Canada is that it is very cold in winter but [that] the opportunities for living [were] much better than in Turkey," Motlaq says.

Still, she wasn't sure how welcome her family would be in a small town and foreign culture in a country she'd never visited. Little did she know that welcoming newcomers had long been Gander's brand.

15 years earlier, Gander played host when nearly 7,000 airline passengers were grounded there on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

When American airspace was closed following the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., 38 planes were forced to land in the town, whose airport is home to one of the largest runways in the area — a legacy left over from an era when aircraft had to make frequent refueling stopovers on their way to and from Europe.

With nothing but their hand luggage, travelers from six continents stepped off their planes to find food, clothes, shelter, and community waiting for them.

Stranded passengers from around the world email their relatives from Gander Academy on 9/11. Photo by Scott Cook/The Canadian Press.

Since opening its doors that day, the town has been profiled in countless articles, a Tom Brokaw documentary, and even a new Broadway musical — "Come From Away."

In 2016, Gander opened its doors once again.

For many residents who helped the stranded passengers in 2001 by preparing meals, donating the contents of their closets, and taking them into their homes, welcoming refugees displaced by war in Syria was a no-brainer.

"I really think that this has been the most rewarding experience of volunteering since 9/11," says Diane Davis, a retired elementary school teacher in Gander and a member of the committee coordinating the resettlement.

Davis, who along with several of her fellow teachers inspired a character in "Come From Away," helped launch the committee in early 2016 with the goal of bringing five Syrian families to Gander.

13-year-old Wiaam Maymouna watches the performance of "Come From Away" in Gander on Oct 29. Photo by Diane Davis.

In early June 2016, the committee received notice that the first family would be arriving in just two weeks. Thus began a mad dash to ensure the houses were fully furnished and stocked with food before they arrived.

"We felt as if we are at home from the very first moment," Motlaq says. Hers was the fourth family to arrive in town — with a fifth still on its way.

The members of the committee were used to scrambling. Just about every person on it, Davis explains, had been involved with housing, feeding, and transporting the "plane people" on 9/11.

"One day after the attack, an old lady came to me at my workplace at Walmart and she hugged me and said, 'Do not be afraid. We love you and we are with you guys.'"
— Samah Motlaq

"I’ve been able to explain to [the refugee families], 'You’re not the first people we’ve helped,'" she says. "'This is the way a community works together. These are the kinds of things we take care of.'"

Resettling the families in Gander, Davis explains, is also an opportunity to revitalize the town, which has evolved into a "retirement community" in recent years.

"We’re a province that has an aging demographic," she says. "We’re a province that has a declining population. We’re a community that has employment and housing. We’ve got a good, strong school system here."

As a former educator who lives across the street from her old classroom, Davis has taken the lead in getting the refugee children, who range in age from 2 to 13, adjusted to their new school.

"I retired in June on a Friday and the first family arrived on a Tuesday. So retirement was three days long," Davis says.

New Gander residents Iman Halawany and her husband, Samer Maymouna, watch their son Abed in his kindergarten Christmas program. Photo by Diane Davis. Photos used with permission.

Her role involves everything from translation to registering the kids for classes to liaising with the parents in case of emergency. When one boy was getting in frequent trouble because he couldn't ask for help, Davis wrote her phone number in his notebook and, with the help of Google Translate, explained that whenever he needed anything, he could show it to his teacher.

For Motlaq, who was born in Palmyra, Syria's cultural capital, living in quiet Gander has been an adjustment from big-city life.

While she misses the activity, she is grateful for her new job at Walmart and the safety, quiet, and fellowship of the community — particularly after a deadly shooting that claimed six lives at the Islamic Cultural Center in Quebec.

"One day after the attack, an old lady came to me at my workplace at Walmart and she hugged me and said, 'Do not be afraid. We love you and we are with you guys,'" Motlaq says.

The conversation left her with a profound affection for her new adopted home. "I knew that day that Canada represents humanity and equality regardless religion or race."

Five months before "Come From Away" opened on Broadway, the cast and crew flew to Newfoundland for two VIP performances in the Gander hockey rink.

Diane Davis and partner Leo McKenna at the premiere of "Come From Away" in New York City. Photo by Diane Davis.

Before the show arrived, Davis asked Irene Sankoff, the musical's co-writer, for tickets for the eight Syrian adults. The production responded with tickets for all four families, including the children.

Explaining the concept of the performance to the newcomers, many of whom have limited English skills, was a challenge at first.  

"They weren’t sure if they were going to see a hockey game," Davis says. After showing them pieces of the NBC documentary, they began to connect their experience to that of the "plane people" 15 years earlier.

The group also met the cast and creative team of the show — many of whom continue to support the resettlement effort with financial aid and, this past December, a trove of Christmas gifts.

"Santa Claus brought [the kids] sleds this year," Davis says. "That may or may not have come via New York."

For the families just finding their footing, the support has been invaluable. But for those who do speak English, like Motlaq and her husband, it was the performance, with its message of finding community amid chaos, that resonated the loudest.

"It is similar to our story," she says.

"We came from away too."  

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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