Building Self-Confidence Among Syrian Teens

A group of teenagers walked into the Edmonton Public Library and greeted each other with a lot of excitement. It was an excitable group. There was a lot of chatter, laughter and still a little shyness. This wasn’t an ordinary group of teenagers, however, this was a group of children that arrived from Syria as refugees just a few months ago. They were speaking Arabic to one another, with some of the girls wearing hijab and greeted one another in customary fashion.


This was the second time they were meeting to work with Empowered Me, as part of the Action For Healthy Communities programme “Youth Talk Club” which helps with confidence building, communication skills and public speaking. Harriet Tinka, Empowered Me owner and coach, was working with them to help them understand self-esteem and build their self-confidence.


“Do you remember the definition of self-esteem?” Harriet had described the concept in the previous session.


“I know the meaning,” said one girl (age 15). “It means to be assertive – or a diva! To think well about yourself and to trust and love yourself, unconditionally.” For an English as a second language student, this was a perfect way to describe self-esteem – many students whose first language is English would find it difficult to explain the meaning.


Harriet teaches that one of the keys to accessing self-esteem is to be grateful for the things in our lives. She took some time to have each student actively write down and share for what they were grateful. Many of the students shared that they were thankful for their family, health, school and learning English. These were the things that were important for them and for many of us.


To further elaborate on this issue of being grateful and making those things a priority in life, Harriet invited the students to take part in an activity. She presented them with a large jar, some large rocks, smaller marbles and then sand. The students were asked to fill the jar with each of those items.


This is an activity that allows them to visualize their priorities as the large rocks and placing them in the jar first. The rocks may fill the jar but then students are asked to add the smaller marbles, which fit between the larger rocks. Once again, the jar appears to be full with the small marbles, which represent secondary things in each students’ lives. The students are then asked to continue filling the jar – this time with the sand that fills in the empty spaces in the jar between the marbles and the rocks. The sand is a metaphor for all the little things in life that help fill our time, but which may not be that important.


For this group of teens, the big rocks included studying, friends and family. The smaller marbles represented exercise and meeting friends The sand represented things like video games or playing on your phone.
In an interesting twist, some students shared a different perspective on how the sand could represent important things in life because they interconnect the larger marbles and rocks – and there was so much more sand than the larger items. “That’s a really interesting perspective,” said Harriet. “But, can you focus on each of those many grains of sand?”


“No! I can only focus on the big things and be happy for them,” said one teen (age 16). This was a great lesson to impart on the students as they strive to focus on the big issues facing them, such as learning English, adapting to Canadian life and making time for their family, studies and new friends.


“I only listen to English music,” said one girl, nicknamed Diva. “I came today to work with Miss Harriet because I wanted to practice my English. I don’t always get to speak outload at school – so this helps. I have only Canadian friends, too, but this helps me understand new things.”


Empowered Me works with schools and organizations in and around the city to help build self-esteem and self-confidence among young people of all ages. “I just want children to be the best version of themselves,” says Harriet. “Working with teens from Syria who have already faced so much, gives me a great deal of pleasure as I see them express themselves and gain that self-confidence.”


Program leader, Basem, also feels this programme is worthwhile for the children. “We’ve been running programmes for ESL students for a number of years, and working with Harriet gives them different tools to use. She forces them to speak in front of others and gives them life lessons they can use throughout their lives.”


For more information on Empowered Me programmes for schools, organizations or individuals, please visit