Diego Cardona channels experience with tragedy to amplify the voices of young refugees

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      In 2012, 16-year-old Diego Cardona and his younger sister found themselves alone in Canada.

      They had immigrated with their mother as refugees from Colombia in 2005, after their father was kidnapped and murdered by guerrilla forces. Now, their mother had succumbed to leukemia, and so Cardona and his sister were placed in foster care.

      For many people, one blow after another might have left them in despair. But Cardona graduated high school with top marks and channeled the tumultuous experiences of his teenage years into a commitment to help other young people in similarly tough circumstances.

      Today, he holds the title of participation coordinator at the Federation of B.C. Youth in Care Networks, a nonprofit that provides assistance and advocates for children and young adults who are in the care of the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development. He’s also pursuing a degree in political science and economics at the University of British Columbia. But the work Cordona talks the most about during an interview with the Straight is Fresh Voices, an organization he co-founded that talks to new immigrants and then works with the government to better meet their needs.

      “What we’ve been doing is engaging with over 450 immigrant refugee youth across the province, helping them translate their stories and their experiences into policy recommendations,” Cordona said via phone.

      In 2012, those efforts, supported by the Vancouver Foundation, took him to Victoria where he spoke before the B.C. legislature and then later had an audience with the province’s minister of education.

      Today Cardona continues that work with the province. But perhaps his greatest impact may be at the federal level. In the run-up to the 2015 election, Fresh Voices helped push specific policy recommendations onto the national agenda.

      The group asked if Ottawa would eliminate a requirement for refugees to repay the government for transportation costs to Canada. Then, when the Liberals took power, transportation debts were waved for refugees from Syria. The requirement as a whole is now under review.

      First Voices also asked for the government to speed up the family-reunification process for newcomers to Canada. Cardona reported progress is also being made there.

      “We went from looking at about 8,000 applications to now looking at 30,000 applications a year,” he said. “So we’re pretty satisfied on the follow-up.”

      Asked how he makes time for all this on top of his studies, Cardona said he’s appreciative to have the opportunity.

      “I don’t see it as a burden or something to juggle,” he replied. “My life has been lived through this lens.”

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