“The majority of my earlier experiences as a newcomer in Canada were filled with feelings of isolation and loneliness,” says Yara Younis.
To Younis, a former refugee who fights for migrant justice and equality as a project manager at the Refugee Livelihood Lab at Simon Fraser University, being a part of a community is essential.
Settlement organizations act as invaluable resources for navigating life in a new country. They provide refugees and newcomers with guidance to accessing essential services, signing children up for school, finding permanent and temporary housing and attaining gainful employment.
This kind of programming has been able to continue, with some notable challenges, as the world grapples with COVID-19. But community-building, a key aspect of settlement work, has been all but impossible.
Activities like team sports, meeting with people from different hobby or interest groups, in-person volunteering or school clubs have all been limited by the inability to meet face-to-face and gather in larger groups. And closures of community centres, schools and places of worship have only worsened the problem.
Truly settling in a new country means building connections with one’s new neighbours, tapping into networks of other newcomers, and experiencing the country’s culture up close. Social integration helps a person develop a sense of belonging and feel like they’re a part of Canadian society.
Based in Nova Scotia, Sarah Wiseman, the CEO of Pictou County Regional Enterprise Network, works directly with Pictou County Safe Harbour, a non-profit refugee sponsorship society. She knows what community can mean to refugees, for various reasons.
“For some, community is faith-based. Pictou County’s Muslim community just recently established the region’s first mosque, which has been a significant community builder for many families of that faith. For some families, the important aspects of community involve having a soccer team that their children can play on, and friends to help with transportation. For everyone, it means living in an area where you feel welcome and respected when you walk down the street or head out to buy groceries.”
While the pandemic has forced Canada to reduce settlement efforts, it has still received a limited number of refugees. The Canadian government recognizes the numerous benefits of doing so and has plans to increase the number of refugees coming into the country from 2021-2023.
Considering that there’s still a great need for newcomers and refugees to find their community, what can Canada’s social impact organizations do to help? It’s certainly been difficult, but it doesn’t mean that these organizations haven’t been able to adjust, find creative solutions and do the best they can with the cards they’ve been dealt.
Community through work
Rusul Alrubail, executive director of Parkdale Centre for Innovation, and her team are doing just that for the many newcomer entrepreneurs they serve through an online platform called CanadaInnovates. This platform supports entrepreneurs and professionals from priority neighbourhoods, areas that have been historically marginalized, often with a dense population of racialized newcomers and those who fall into the low-income bracket, who seek career opportunities in tech. It achieves this goal of supporting key groups by connecting them with an inclusive business network and providing access to Parkdale Centre’s various programming online as well as the Early Stage Program for startups.
“One of the biggest challenges newcomers face when they arrive in Canada is finding meaningful employment and career opportunities,” says Alrubail. “There are a lot of biases at play when it comes to hiring and launching a business, and newcomers have to face racial, social and financial barriers while building a new life and working to secure a future for themselves and their families.”
And employment and entrepreneurship isn’t just about financial stability; for many, it directly impacts their social life and community. Finding gainful employment can lead to building strong relationships with colleagues and networking opportunities. Having a stable job also allows newcomers to think more about building and finding a community rather than focus mainly on supporting themselves and their families financially.
The refugee students participating in WUSC’s Student Refugee Program (SRP) understand this all too well. SRP is the only program of its kind to combine opportunities for resettlement and higher education, including helping students build community through networking opportunities and day-to-day social support. Since 1978, the SRP has supported more than 1,700 young refugees from 39 countries of origin to resettle and study at over 80 universities, colleges, and CEGEPs across Canada.
Ashley Korn, program manager for In Canada Operations for SRP, says one of the key ways they pivoted during COVID-19 was welcoming refugee students at the start of the winter semester rather than the traditional fall welcoming period. “We worked with all of the relevant institutions and local committees to ensure that this was going to be feasible and were able to get the majority of committees to commit to this change.“
Collaborating for community-building
When it comes to organizations helping refugees and newcomers build community, Korn strongly believes that it’s everyone’s responsibility — individual citizens, government services and community-based organizations — to look at the demographics of their community and make sure newcomers can access services that are tailored to their unique situation in an inclusive way. This includes providing support for language barriers, legal documentation, trauma-informed care, employment opportunities and more.
“The key is a city or municipality’s desire to be intentional about welcoming newcomers and ensure that programs and services can be newcomer friendly.”
Christine Mylks, WUSC’s manager of overseas programming in the durable solutions portfolio, also agrees. She says an example of this work is roundtables that bring together different agencies and organizations that want to better serve newcomers and former refugees.
“In Kingston, there’s a very active immigrant services roundtable where the police department, YMCA, school boards, health clinics, hospitals and more come together to discuss how they can make sure that newcomers are supported for whatever community-based needs they have,” says Mylks. “The key is a city or municipality’s desire to be intentional about welcoming newcomers and ensure that programs and services can be newcomer friendly.
For example, this could mean policy changes that allow a city to allocate budget toward expanding existing services to include newcomers, especially social services such as primary education, employment programs and healthcare, or combating geographic marginality by ensuring impoverished neighborhoods are well-served.
What does Canada stand to lose?
While it’s clear that not being able to find a community in a new country is detrimental to refugees and newcomers, Mylks suggests that as Canadians, we should also ask ourselves, “What is Canada missing out on if we don’t include them in our society and lives?”
For one, newcomers make significant economic contributions to Canadian society. Contrary to the belief that they’re a drain on our economy, they pay taxes like Canadian citizens and are also a vital part of the workforce. Some end up creating new job opportunities for people in Canada through entrepreneurial ventures — building and leading communities of their own.
“Although refugees and newcomers require some time to integrate and settle into their new communities, most are eager to make contributions,” says Wiseman. “For some newcomers, that happens through volunteerism and building social connections. But for many, it’s an eagerness to join the local workforce, to provide for their families, and to build self-sufficiency and relationships in their new homes. This kind of population and skill growth is essential for rural communities like ours, where ageing populations see an ever shrinking workforce.”
It’s about more than just economic prosperity. “Founders are building businesses that are purposefully driven, really zoning in on the value they have to offer for customers and more importantly, our marginalized communities,” says Rusul Alrubail.
Younis says this is the kind of community she’s always sought out. “I actively seek out community relationships, because it’s extremely challenging and stressful to navigate new systems on your own,” she says. “Finding community allowed me to build power within myself, to feel understood, and to have a sense of purpose when it comes to social justice issues impacting immigrants and refugees.”