Immigration declined during the pandemic but some still took the leap; here's one family's experience
'We decided to take that risk instead of waiting for indefinite time,' says recent immigrant to Saskatoon
On the day Azadeh Farshadpour and her family arrived at the airport to fly 10,000 kilometres to their new home, nobody came along to wave goodbye.
By the time she left Iran for Saskatoon, Farshadpour hadn't seen her brother and sister in over a year. As she waited for the plane to take off, all she could think about was the family she was leaving behind.
Farshadpour, her husband, Abolfazl Aminaie, and their two children immigrated to Canada in July 2020.
Not being able to say goodbye to her loved ones at the airport, and not knowing when she would see them again, was one of the hardest aspects for the 38-year-old of leaving her home country.
"It's something in my heart ... when I'm thinking about it, it's always bothering me," she said.
COVID-19 travel restrictions, flight cancellations, and the heartbreak of the departure itself would be only the beginning of the hardships of migrating during a pandemic.
According to the Saskatchewan Bureau of Statistics, net international migration only added 704 people to the province in the third quarter of 2020 compared to 5,911 during the same period in 2019.
For those who did arrive, the already challenging aspects of immigration, like securing housing, finding a job, integrating at school, making community connections and other essential settlement steps, became that much harder.
Coming to Saskatchewan
Farshadpour and her husband decided to leave everything behind to start a new life in Canada mostly for their children's sake.
After waiting three years to receive their visas, the family didn't want to delay their departure for an indefinite time as a result of the pandemic.
"It wasn't clear how long the coronavirus pandemic would take," said Farshadpour.
"We decided to move to Canada and take a risk during the pandemic."
For the first two weeks in Canada, all the family knew about Saskatoon was the airport and a basement suite they spent their quarantine in.
Finding a rental place prior to leaving their home country was difficult. Due to the high COVID-19 numbers in Iran, people in Saskatoon were hesitant to rent a place to the family. But they were finally able to find a "very nice landlord," said Farshadpour.
Members of the Iranian community in Saskatoon helped the family during their quarantine, like by dropping off food.
"Without them we could do nothing," said Farshadpour.
"We were so lucky to find them before coming to Canada."
'It took time'
The family enjoyed their freedom after quarantine, but the pandemic continued to complicate their settlement process.
Instead of a quick trip to Service Canada, applying and receiving their social insurance numbers (SINs) took two weeks. SINs are essential for all Canadian residents in order to work.
"Everywhere that we wanted to go we had to call them before, we had to book an appointment," Farshadpour said.
"It took time."
Transitioning to a new life during a global pandemic was not only a challenge for the adults. Their nine-year-old son, Kiarash, initially struggled in school, missing his friends and family back in Iran.
"For him it was more difficult than us," said Farshadpour. "He didn't know English very well. ... When he came back [from school], he was crying."
Kiarash kept asking his mother why they brought him here.
"It was difficult for me also as a mum to make him calm and explain to him the situation."
COVID-19 as a leveller
Despite the slogan 'we are all in this together', newcomers and visible minorities are more likely to report encounters of attacks, harassment and stigma during the pandemic, according to Statistics Canada.
They're also disproportionately represented in higher risk jobs, such as front-line healthcare work, and the food and accommodation industries, according to Statistics Canada.
Regardless of the data, Michael Afenfia believes the pandemic has worked as a leveller for immigrants and non-immigrants.
"It was something we all had to deal with," said Afenfia, who came to Canada from Nigeria in August 2019 and also lives in Saskatoon.
"Maybe it was particularly hard for the newcomers because you're new to this place — you don't exactly have family and friends and all that — but we all felt the isolation.
"I kind of saw all of us going through that whole process of isolation, all of us going through that whole process of being locked away and not being able to connect in the ways that we knew."
While an ocean separates Afenfia from his family, like many immigrants, other Saskatchewan residents now found themselves barred from seeing relatives in their own city.
Another shared experience is the anxiety of finding or maintaining work during the pandemic.
From February to April 2020, the COVID-19 shutdown affected 5.5 million workers in Canada and three million jobs were lost, according to Statistics Canada. By August 2020, employment was still 5.3 per cent below the national pre-pandemic level.
Afenfia considers himself fortunate to have found work at the Saskatoon Open Door Society just before the coronavirus outbreak in Saskatchewan.
"I keep thinking even now what would have happened if I hadn't secured the position before the lockdown," he said.
"It's something that is really terrifying."
Afenfia knows a lot of newcomers whose settlement process has been affected because of the challenge of finding work.
"You want to work immediately because the funds or the resources you've come with, it keeps depleting," said Afenfia.
Family-based resilience through Indigenous teachings
Immigrants who have been in Canada longer haven't been immune to its effects, of course. Ranjan Datta has lived here for 10 years, but the pandemic still hit him and his family hard.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in the province, he lived with his family in a residence at the University of Saskatchewan. Then they received an email that everyone has to vacate within a couple of weeks.
"We have no other place to go," said Datta. "We don't have relatives [here], so it was serious."
Eventually the residents were allowed to stay, and Datta and his family found ways to cope with the stress, including turning to Indigenous land-based practices for inspiration on resilience
"Every day we used to go outside and walking the land, sharing our story with our children," said Datta, who has since moved to Alberta to work as a Canada Research Chair at Mount Royal University.
Datta and his family published their autoethnographic research, highlighting "how Indigenous Elders, Knowledge-Keepers, and ancestors' stories helped" the family to stay active and hopeful during the pandemic.
"We didn't feel that we are isolated," said Datta.
He and his family didn't just spend lots of time outside, they also connected with the land for food purposes, like by fishing.
"We became so resilient in a way. We had the opportunity to learn, to know ourselves, to reflect ourselves."
A new life in Saskatoon
Eight months after moving to Canada, life has become easier for Farshadpour and her family.
She loves Saskatoon, especially the people.
Eager to make connections in her new hometown, Farshadpour has signed up for different programs at the Global Gathering Place, an immigrant settlement agency in Saskatoon.
On top of the online courses she takes at the agency, the former software engineer started working part-time as a customer experience associate.
"I decided to improve my skills such as speaking and learning the language better," she said.
Her older son has since learned English and laughs again, particularly when the family goes out tobogganing.
"I didn't know my older son is kind of an adventurous boy, you know. He went up the hill and then, wow, he was sliding," said Farshadpour.
She has no regrets about immigrating during the pandemic instead of postponing the move.
"When we decided to come here, we knew that it has some risk," she said. "But we decided to take that risk instead of waiting for indefinite time."
In the beginning Farshadpour spoke with her family in Iran several times a day, but starting to grow roots in Saskatchewan has helped her cope.