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10 under 20

Diego Cardona, middle, works with other immigrants and refugees during a youth advisory team meeting at the Vancouver Foundation's Fresh Voices Youth Committee office in Burnaby, British Columbia.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The Globe's B.C. bureau is profiling 10 young people aged 20 and under who are doing great things in fields ranging from arts to science to activism. Today, Diego Cardona advocates for immigrant and refugee youth in B.C.

Diego Cardona watches Canada's Syrian refugee plan unfold from a unique position: 10 years ago, he and his family set foot in Canada as refugees themselves, looking to carve out a future after fleeing their native Colombia.

He knows all too well how difficult it will be for some to learn English, not having spoken a word of it himself when he, his mother and sister first arrived in 2005. He is aware of the discrimination some newcomers will face. And he knows that a shift in responsibilities, from parents to children, will mean tremendous stress for many refugee youth.

At 19, Mr. Cardona has become a vocal advocate for immigrant and refugee youth. Drawing from his own experiences, he informs decision makers and helps give voice to young people through his work with the Vancouver Foundation's Fresh Voices Youth Advisory Team and the City of Vancouver's Cultural Communities Advisory Committee.

He has been bolstered by the positive response, he said.

"We do a lot of advocacy, which means bringing forward the feedback from our community and some of the struggles that people are facing," Mr. Cardona said.

"But at Fresh Voices, we also always try to recognize the fact that as we approach government and institutions that migrant youth interact with, the response has always been positive. There has always been space for conversation and dialogue."

One issue that Mr. Cardona identified through experience is a shift in the burden of responsibilities from non-English-speaking parents to children, who can be quicker to adapt and learn the local language.

"We are the ones who do the interactions with schools, we're the ones who talk to the banks and phone companies, we're the ones who talk to the hydro company," he said. "There is a shift in that burden of responsibility that becomes, in many cases, a mental health struggle for young people. It becomes a struggle because there are no supports available to help balance their school lives, their [social life] and their responsibilities as head of the family."

Another is the fact that, in some school districts, students in English Language Learning courses – formerly known as English as a Second Language classes – do not receive school credits as native English speakers in other language courses do, Mr. Cardona said. This means some ELL students have to make up the credits elsewhere and risk graduating later.

"There is also a broad perception that some of us are taught ELL for our success and some of us are taught ELL just to stay in ELL, to allow schools to receive extra funding," Mr. Cardona said. "It was realizing all of that and saying, 'This is not fair. This is a form of discrimination against migrant and refugee youth that needs to be addressed.'"

On his personal blog, he has pontificated on Canada's Syrian refugee plan (including panning the idea that Canada can't adequately screen 25,000 refugees so quickly), the role of the Vancouver School Board's student trustee position and provincial and federal politics.

Mr. Cardona credits his success in advocacy work to an Immigrant Services Society of B.C. Multicultural Youth Circle program, an intensive 80-hour long program designed to help immigrant and refugee youth cope with stress, build confidence and become more involved in the community.

He is now in his second year at the University of B.C., where he is studying political science and economics. Upon graduation, he hopes to expand his advocacy work, perhaps to a national level.

"I've always been a fan of politics," he added with a chuckle. "Who knows? Maybe there's a run in the near future."