'Everything is hard for us': Newcomers find arrival in Canada complicated by COVID-19
Non-profit groups to help immigrants and refugees provide psychological and linguistic supports
The physical distancing rules that have disrupted life for every British Columbian during the COVID-19 pandemic are putting an extra roadblock in the way of newcomers to the province, as they try to settle, make connections and find jobs.
Shayan Zareanaghezi, 32, and his wife arrived in Vancouver from Iran on Feb. 19 just a few weeks before travel restrictions and COVID-19 physical distancing measures went into effect to prevent the spread of the virus.
They have been trying to find jobs and find out about services to learn English but are having a hard time because of closures affecting government services.
"These days the rule is to stay home. But how to make money? And it's not a good idea to go back home because of this situation," Zareanaghezi said.
He said they are using their savings in the interim but other families may be having a harder time paying rent and getting food and he hopes more can be done for newcomers who don't qualify for emergency benefits because they didn't work in Canada the previous year.
"Because everywhere is closed and it was so hard for us even to open a bank account to get a Visa card and do something like this. Everything is hard for us."
He said he has been struggling to connect with services to help him access English language classes.
Newcomers and refugees, many of whom face challenges in mastering the English language and leave all the social connections behind in their home countries, are particularly vulnerable to psychological isolation amid the pandemic, said Jean McRae, CEO of Inter-Cultural Association (ICA) of Greater Victoria, a local charity that provides supports to immigrants.
Lack of connections and income
"They feel so far away from the people who they've known and grown up with in their families. And on top of that, they're not really getting many opportunities to meet new people and to make new connections," she told All Points West host Kathryn Marlow on Monday.
McRae said her organization has been conducting phone assessments of clients to figure out the appropriate psychological support amid the pandemic.
But newcomers and refugees, many of whom are service workers, also suffer the severe impact of temporary or even permanent closure of thousands of businesses across the province due to the official ban on large gatherings.
The eligibility requirement for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit — that the applicant should earn a minimum employment income of $5,000 in the previous year — creates a problem for the low-wage newcomers, said McRae.
Linguistic support for newcomers
The settlement service agency leader said many newcomers and refugees who have been coming to Victoria since 2016 are Arabic speakers. She is appreciative of the B.C. government's latest effort to make its essential information regarding Covid-19 available in eight non-English languages including Arabic, but the agency is still working to help newcomers overcome linguistic barriers.
One of the major settlement services that the ICA provides is English tutoring, which is continuing online but has been put on hold in physical classrooms.
McRae noted that some of her clients are not computer literate enough to take language classes virtually, and the ICA tutors have been exploring ways to make language learning accessible to a diversity of clients so that nobody is left behind.
The ICA also works toward launching a text messaging system that translates the staff's messages into the client's first language.
If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at email@example.com.
With files from All Points West