Emotional wellness overlooked when it comes to immigrants and refugees thriving in new lives

Housing and employment are usually the two most immediate needs talked about for newcomers to Calgary. But emotional wellness is often overlooked.

Calgary conference addresses hidden barrier for women trying to integrate

Emotional wellness is different than clinical conditions like PTSD and depression, but it's an important factor when it comes to starting a new life in Canada. ((Frank Augstein/Associated Press))

Housing and employment are usually the two most immediate needs talked about for foreign newcomers to Calgary.

But experts in the settlement field say another huge component to making a successful start is being overlooked: emotional wellness, especially in women.

A conference in Calgary will spend the next two days focused on that issue and how it can be moved farther up the long ladder of priorities for immigrants from faraway countries and the agencies that help them once they arrive.

Researchers, agencies, practitioners and newcomers themselves will get together at Calgary's Central Library on Wednesday and Thursday to take a closer look at the topic. Organizers hope participants leave with some new ways of thinking about the role of emotional wellness in settlement and integration.

Newcomers don't have to pay to access the conference, which includes free child care on-site.

"We want to differentiate emotional wellness from clinical mental health conditions like PTSD and depression. The majority of cases in the settlement experience are around adjusting to a new environment and the stresses involved," said Cesar Suva, director of research and development at The Immigrant Education Society (TIES) in Calgary.

The Immigrant Education Society is one of the groups behind the conference, along with the University of Calgary's faculty of nursing. It's being funded by a Status of Women Alberta community grant.

Cesar Suva with The Immigrant Education Society says the conference this week will highlight emotional wellness, which is often overlooked as a factor for success in making a new start in a new country. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

We want to connect people working in the same area so they can share experiences and ideas, maybe start new areas of research and knowledge and new initiatives," said Suva.

The conference will bring together CEOs of settlement organizations for a town hall, as well as a leadership panel involving input from politicians.

"Wellness facilitates finding a job, becoming part of a new community and learning a new language. If you don't have emotional wellness, it becomes a barrier," said Suva.

Women in particular can struggle with accessing help when they need it. Some are worried it might affect their status or cause financial problems. Others worry about cultural beliefs and stigma around mental health. Then there's sharing their problems in a new language. 

Suva says if you struggle with emotional wellness, everything can take longer, hindering successful integration and causing economic isolation.

"It revolves around removing the stigma, making those connections, building social ties and easing that whole process of economic and social integration," Suva said.

Moving to a new country can be difficult and stressful for many reasons.

It could be leaving family and friends back home or being unfamiliar with new surroundings, culture and processes in the early days, weeks, months and years.

"Being an immigrant myself and a woman, I understand. I had the same journey and I understand what women are going through," said Noha Eltanahi, a settlement counsellor with TIES who came to Canada from Egypt.

Women coming from the other side of the world often don't have the power in families and partnerships, creating stress at home.

Noha Eltanahi says the focus on maintaining and talking about women’s emotional wellness can lead to more successful settlement by newcomer families. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

"When they come here, they find out women have a lot of rights here, and just that can lead to problems with their spouse because the other person is used to having the upper hand," said Eltanahi.

Eltanahi says that in one group she worked with recently from rural areas, the women traditionally stayed home while the men worked, with some women taking education while at home.

That led to quicker success for the women in learning English and other skills in Canada compared with the men in the family, who then became embarrassed when their wives became the English speakers, communicators and family leaders after arriving here.

Even the frustration of mundane housekeeping tasks like banking and connecting and paying for utilities can be a big stress as a newcomer.

Eltanahi says it's important for newcomers to share experiences and talk through their problems and concerns and share their stresses.

One panel at this week's conference will bring together newcomer women from different Prairie cities, including Saskatoon and Winnipeg, to do just that, discussing their experiences unique to starting a new life in Western Canada.

Tickets to the conference are sold out but newcomers who have lived in Canada fewer than five years can contact TIES for free admission.


Dan McGarvey


Dan McGarvey is a mobile journalist focused on filing stories remotely for CBC Calgary’s web, radio, TV and social media platforms, using just an iPhone and mobile tech. His work is used by mobile journalism (mojo) trainers and educators around the world. Dan is largely focused on under-reported communities and issues in Calgary and southern Alberta. You can email story ideas and tips to Dan at