For newcomers to Canada, social isolation amplified during COVID-19 pandemic
Many come from cultures where extended family is important
Five months before the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a state of emergency, Fabio Sehungiza arrived in New Brunswick to start a new life.
More than 10,000 kilometres from his native Burundi, his mother was his only connection in the city he hoped to make his home.
"I didn't know anyone in Fredericton," he said.
After a month, Sehungiza began taking English classes at the Multicultural Association of Fredericton and found a job with a construction company.
The 30-year-old experienced the challenge of his first Canadian winter, started to meet new people and gradually join the community. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
"When I heard about the pandemic myself, I was scared," Sehungiza said. "I was like 'OK, now this is the end,' because many people die."
The Multicultural Association closed, and schools, stores and businesses shuttered as the province entered a state of emergency in response to the pandemic. New Brunswickers were asked to stay home and practise physical distancing.
Newcomers, psychologists and settlement workers say immigrants — particularly recent ones — have experienced exacerbated social isolation during the pandemic. That's a challenge tied to the obstacles of arriving in a new country with few connections and often limited language skills.
Lisa Bamford De Gante, executive director of the association, said recent newcomers don't have a sense of life before the pandemic to compare things to. There's also the obstacle of understanding the news and updates in their first language.
"Especially for the people who, their socialization in Canada was primarily their English class and now those classes don't meet face-to-face, they're remote," she said. "People living in an apartment now only meeting with their social reference group remotely, feel isolated."
'We got scared'
For more recent immigrants to Fredericton, the pandemic struck in the middle of their transition.
Sehungiza said he and his family followed Public Health directives to stay at home when the province was placed under a state of emergency in March. He worried about himself and the health of family still in Burundi.
"When I heard about the pandemic myself, I was scared," he said. "I was like 'OK, now this is the end,' because many people die."
English classes moved online with homework assignments and Zoom video calls with the teacher and classmates. But Sehungiza said he has trouble focusing at home and misses the experience of seeing his peers.
He said staying at home with limited socializing made him feel uncomfortable.
"You feel like you are in jail."
Daily life upended
For Fatima Al-Hammoud, daily life under the pandemic changed rapidly.
She arrived in Fredericton with her husband and two children nearly three years ago as a privately sponsored refugee from Syria. Her third child was born last year.
Al-Hammoud, 33, said it has been challenging to rebuild her life in Fredericton.
"When I first came here it was very hard for me to reach out to people, because my English wasn't very strong," she said.
"Everything was different. The language, the weather, the culture."
As cases of COVID-19 arrived in the province, her job at the Montessori Learning Centre daycare stopped, and English classes at the Multicultural Association moved online.
Al-Hammoud stayed at home teaching her daughter while continuing to study herself. It was challenging to adjust, and she was worried about her family.
"It was very hard to quarantine," she said. "My daughter even cried, she wanted to go out."
They have faced another challenge during the state of emergency.
When a large storm swept through Fredericton in June, downed electrical lines sparked a fire at her apartment building, forcing the family to evacuate. The multicultural association has helped them find temporary housing while repairs are underway.
"This reminds me of the war in Syria, when everybody leaves his home," she said. "It's really hard."
Newcomers face more anxiety
Little research has been conducted about the effects of social isolation on Canada's newcomer populations during the COVID-19 pandemic. But experts say the life circumstances of immigrants can result in their being adversely affected — more than others.
A recent Statistics Canada survey found that immigrants were more likely than Canadian-born respondents to be worried about maintaining social ties and family stress during the pandemic.
Steve Joordens, a professor of psychology at University of Toronto Scarborough, said human beings naturally seek out connection as a way of dealing with anxiety.
He said immigrants from certain cultural backgrounds, such as the Middle East, also face the added challenge of cultural stigma around mental health and seeking help. Many newcomers also face the experience of disconnection from extended family — hard to access with time zones and technology problems.
Social isolation is linked to health problems, including anxiety, depression and in turn a compromised immune system.
"We could have a group that actually is feeling more anxious than the rest of us because of the enhanced unfamiliarity and just doesn't have access to the same coping mechanism as easily as the rest of us do," Joordens said.
Studies on the effects of isolation on humans show that in extreme circumstances, people suffer serious mental health problems nearly to the point of losing their identity and personality.
Weeks away from school
Leen, Al-Hammoud's seven-year-old daughter, remembers clearly the difficulties of starting kindergarten after the civil war uprooted life in Syria. She arrived in Canada at age five.
"I didn't know English and it was hard to learn, and I didn't talk when I would go to school," she said.
Now in Grade 2 at Connaught Street School in Fredericton, she has gradually formed friendships. Her school closed in March and she went home to weeks of learning with her mother.
Leen Al-Hammoud said she felt isolated and missed seeing her teacher and friends. As the pandemic worsened, she also feared for family still living in Syria.
"If you want to eat you can't, you have to eat a little bit — just like one piece of bread in a day," she said.
Kalaba, of the multicultural association, said the isolation is especially difficult for younger people.
"One of the coping mechanisms in their life is friends and socialization, and now in a new country, they don't have that friends network," she said.
Socializing is culturally important
The Multicultural Association is looking at the possibility of restarting in-person classes in the fall. Changes will need to be made to the building to allow for social distancing.
In the meantime, the organization is focused on helping its clients with access to technology by connecting them with donated computers and tablets. It worked with schools to distribute technology to children when their classes were moved entirely online.
Ljiljana Kalaba, the association's director of settlement service, said many newcomers come from communities where extended family and socializing is important. There is already a difference when arriving in Canada.
"To not be able to see each other, or to meet with each other, to share their experiences, to learn from each other — it's very difficult," she said.