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Exploring the impact of COVID-19 on newcomers to Canada

Exploring the impact of COVID-19 on newcomers to Canada

Over the last 15 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a dramatic impact on individuals and families across the country. For many Canadians, the health and economic challenges caused by the pandemic have been well documented. However, this is not the case for everyone. Newcomers to Canada are a population that has faced a unique set of barriers when dealing with COVID-19. A lack of community support, language barriers, and the increased stress of having family in other regions of the world all compound the effect that the pandemic has had on newcomers. Yet very little work has been done to develop a full understanding of what this means for newcomers or the additional supports that may be necessary for this vulnerable population.

Dr. Setareh Ghahari is an Associate Professor in the School of Rehabilitation Therapy. As an immigrant herself, Dr. Ghahari is aware of the challenges that newcomers to Canada have faced during the pandemic and knows how important it is to understand and advocate for their needs. As a member of several international organizations studying migrant health, earlier this year Dr. Ghahari was made aware of an international survey study that she was eager to be a part of. The aim of the study is to understand how COVID-19 has impacted newcomers’ food security, employment, and general health. Once complete, Dr. Ghahari will be able to compare results between countries and between the different groups of newcomers within Canada.

“My research is all about accessing health and services for marginalized populations, including immigrants and refugees,” says Dr. Ghahari. “Over the past year, there have been numerous initiatives aimed at understanding the extent of effects that Covid-19 has had on Canadians and with it, calls for increased services and support. Yet, often missing from those reports, statements, and public acknowledgements, are the struggles unique to our marginalized groups, notably for our newcomer populations in Canada. Having immigrated to Canada 10 years ago, I have come to recognize that there simply isn’t enough information about how the impact that I, as an immigrant face is different to that of my neighbours who have lived their whole lives in this country. Having also reflected on my own privileges during this time—being well educated and employed in a great job with Queen’s—I began to think about how the severity of these impacts may increase for newcomers who do not have those same supports as I do”.

According to Dr. Ghahari newcomers are facing three major challenges. “The first major factor is the prominent concern of housing insecurity,” says Dr. Ghahari. When we asked newcomers participating in our survey “If you lost your house today, do you have a family member or a close friend that you could go and live with? Most newcomers answered ‘no’. The major underpinnings of this reality, are owed to financial and employment instability for many marginalized workers, paired with the acute isolation many of these individuals face with access cut off from their families abroad. The second major factor is the language barrier that is often present and how that impacts your access to the news. Listening to or reading the news in a new language is a skill that takes time to develop. Those who are new to the language aren’t getting those daily updates that are often critical for their health, safety, and engagement in their community matters. Finally, many immigrants leave behind friends, family, and loved one’s back in their countries of origin, often introducing feelings of helplessness in their struggles to aid them from afar. In essence, newcomers often worry, in part for themselves, but also for those who are back home, whether that be their children, parents, or relatives”.

There are several trends that Dr. Ghahari expects to see emerge based on the initial data that she has reviewed. Like many Canadians, newcomers have lost jobs and income during the pandemic. Early results indicate that food insecurity, employment insecurity and high levels of anxiety and depression during the pandemic to be more common among this group. In addition to exploring how newcomers compare to the general population in coping with these challenges, Dr. Ghahari will explore how different groups of newcomers, including immigrants, refugees, undocumented people, and international students compare to each other.

Dr. Ghahari’s research presents a major opportunity to inform policy and increase support for newcomers to Canada. “I’m hopeful that this study will help us open up public discourse to better understand how to bring forth tangible support for newcomers amidst the wake of Covid-19, and the aftermath that is yet to come. My first goal once this is completed will be to present my findings to the general public and to policymakers to improve funding for settlement organizations,” says Dr. Ghahari. “There is a misconception in Canada that we spend a great deal of money funding settlement organizations for newcomers when this isn’t the reality; attested by the very real struggles faced at the individual level for newcomers. Additionally, both the Canadian educational and healthcare systems have received increased funding to meet the gaps presented by Covid-19, yet our newcomers—who are very much part of these infrastructures—are not equally supported through proportionate settlement organization funding”.

While one in every five Canadians is an immigrant, their stories are not part of the dominant narrative in the country. Dr. Ghahari’s research is positioned to change this by providing concrete evidence of the needs of newcomers, and with it, a voice to call for change.

To learn more about the work of settlement organizations in Kingston, visit the websites below.

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