Immigrating to Nova Scotia, and the sometimes slow journey to call it home
How new immigrants create a sense of belonging in their new country can make a big difference
When Joshua Addo arrived in Halifax from Ghana as a new immigrant in March 2019 he had to adjust to many new things, not the least of which was the weather.
"I left Ghana in March. It was around 32 degrees back home and when I got into Halifax it was -11," he said. "So, it was a shock."
Like most newcomers, Addo discovered that fitting into life in a new country and culture can be a daunting, and sometimes traumatic, experience.
Immigration means leaving behind social networks, family, work colleagues and community groups — the support systems that people rely on for their psychological well-being.
Kathy Hogarth, an associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Waterloo and an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago, said Canada needs to do a better job of helping new immigrants adjust once they arrive.
"It then becomes important as a society, as communities, for us to ask ourselves, 'How are we supporting newcomers in making those transitions and forming social networks and the network platform for belonging?'" she said.
Hogarth said the mental toll caused by adjusting to a new environment, building new social networks and negotiating a different culture is made far worse when the immigrant's previous work experience and education are not recognized in Canada.
"You've just played with people's psyche and you've told them that we want you here, you agree," she said. "And once we get you, we tell you you're rubbish."
She said there are ways of validating foreign credentials and experience, but no one seems to have the will to do it.
"What we engage in is a very colonial view, this very elitist way of thinking that if it's not made in Canada, it is no good."
Addo left his financial consultant job to move to Halifax to join his then girlfriend, now his wife. He said he thought with all the experience he had in Ghana he would find a place to work in Nova Scotia rather easily.
What he found instead was that prospective employers did not recognize his credentials and were looking for Canadian experience, and he "just wasn't getting through to any relevant jobs."
"The funny thing is when people come to Africa ... we take whatever credentials that we get and direct experience and give them the rules to work with. Without saying, 'Oh no, this doesn't work, or we have to give you an exam or something before we can give you the job.'"
He now works with UPS and as a volunteer at the public library.
Like newcomers before him, Addo felt it was essential to establish new connections with like-minded people to help him feel a sense of belonging.
He said joining a church, Saint Benedict Parish in Halifax, was his first step in feeling part of the community, even before he met fellow Ghanaians — which he eventually did.
"A few people have been here for decades, longer than I have been alive," he said. "Some of them gave me insights on how to work, volunteer, see Canada as it is and how to experience it. For me, it was two communities: church and then the Ghanian community after."
Addo's choice of joining a church as his first step is not unusual. According to Hogarth, many immigrants who are religiously affiliated reach out to church groups first. People look to connect based on similarities they have, she said, and newcomers may find that they can fit into several groups based on their various identities.
"[What] people are looking for, by and large, is affinity, whether that is religious affinity, cultural affinity, sexual identity affinity," she said. "We tend to find whatever the identity is that is strongest for individuals. That is where they seek help."
Suzan Alhajiibrahim-Marie, who moved to Halifax with her family from the Palestinian Territories in 2017, said they found connections through both their Muslim and Arabic identities.
She joined a Jordanian-Palestinian group shortly after arriving and started attending the local mosque.
"In [the] mosque there are a lot of social gatherings ... and we went there and I took my kids," she said. "They need to continue with this connection with their culture, with their food, with their religion. It is very important to me."
Alhajiibrahim-Marie said she strongly believes that while it is a good idea to stick with people from your community, it should not be to the exclusion of interacting with, and learning from, other communities.
"How can you create this connection with others if you just isolate yourself with your community, talking the same things and talking the same language," she said.
Hogarth said in her own case, most of the people she has connected with in her community happen to be Jamaican, so she connected with the broader Caribbean identity and then the broader Black community.
The tendency to want to pigeonhole people into an identity without recognizing cultural or other differences is a significant problem, Hogarth said.
"Part of the challenge is, 'Oh, you're Black, then this is the group for you,'" she said. "In Blackness there are a whole lot of distinctions ... there is no one Blackness, just like there is no one whiteness."
She said allowing for movement within groups and between groups is important and people should be allowed to "chart their own path."
One possible solution to helping new arrivals feel a sense of connection is for Nova Scotia to emulate the Manitoba provincial nominee program, according to Ken Oguzie, a Nigerian who moved to Nova Scotia from London in 2014.
Oguzie is now a successful entrepreneur and said the Manitoba program allows skilled workers from around the world to move to the province with their family once they have a "close relative" in the province willing to help them with a settlement plan.
Manitoba's definition of a close relative includes siblings, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles, first cousins, parents and grandparents.
Oguzie said having family nearby guarantees a sense of community and discourages immigrants to the province from moving outside the province in search of better prospects.
"A good example is my brother moved here with his family a year ago from Nigeria, and if I had any thoughts of moving out of Nova Scotia that just went down the drain. Right now why would I want to move."
Access to familiar foods can also provide newcomers with a sense of belonging. Immigrants cook comforting regional dishes or find restaurants that can provide them with a taste of home.
Christine Allen is originally from Jamaica and is co-owner of Brawta, a restaurant in downtown Halifax.
She said Caribbean people tend to cook at home but her restaurant has proven popular with African and Caribbean students who are missing home.
"It was just a space for them to come and be able to chat and enjoy the food and just a welcoming space for them."
She said while the availability of Jamaican ingredients has been improving in Halifax, she has had to source some hard-to-find ingredients in Toronto in the past and, before the pandemic, through visitors from Jamaica.
Allen recalled an amusing phone call she had with her daughter while Allen was still living in Jamaica and her daughter was in Halifax as an international student.
"She called and said, 'You know, Mommy, I can't find anything to eat,'" Allen said. "She was saying it's all fries and pizza and stuff, so she wanted some good food, like actual food to eat."
She said Jamaican food is appealing to many newcomers because the Caribbean is a melting pot and its cuisine draws influence from many parts of the world.
"Asian persons and persons of African descent find that they can identify with Jamaican food because, of course, we are influenced by all of these other cultures and the ingredients are often the same that they would be familiar with in their home."
Belonging and mental health
Nova Scotia's population reached a record high in July 2020 thanks largely to immigration. But there's nothing stopping immigrants who arrive through the Nova Scotia immigration program from moving to another province once they are approved.
According to Halifax immigration lawyer Lee Cohen, the key challenge is encouraging newcomers to stay in the province.
"The retention number is the most important number. They are the people who are attracted enough to stay here, to put roots down here, and to help us grow Nova Scotia," he said.
Hogarth said we all have a role to play in helping new immigrants develop a sense of belonging.
"In this day and age, I think COVID has highlighted the necessity to talk about mental well-being. Well, belonging is part of that package of mental well-being and good mental health," she said.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
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