Reflections on “Living in Colour”: Have We Done Enough to Help Refugees Settle in Canada?

I think we have done a lot of great things to be proud of as Canadians. Take a look for example at the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program — a one-of-a-kind refugee program that other countries should look at. But there are always ways to improve. Our response to the refugee crisis is a work in progress and just as we helped thousands of Syrian refugees find a safe home, we can definitely help other refugees find peace and safety in Canada.

But how can we look at the benefits from having such a great pathway to sponsor refugees through the private sponsorship program beyond just sponsoring refugees?
In other words: Canadians who sponsored refugees demonstrated courage and compassion, and in return many of them found connection and community in this new experience. Sponsorship programs allow Canadian citizens to be ambassadors for refugees.

During my time working with LifeLine Syria — a non-profit assisting sponsor groups to welcome and resettle Syrian refugees as permanent residents in the GTA, I have heard and seen many heartbreaking stories, of people desperate to leave war-torn Syria. Even when we were trying to help connect these refugees to private sponsors’ groups, in many cases, we lost connection with these refugees and we never knew what happened to them.  On the other hand, I have seen sponsors passion and commitment to help refugees resettle in their new home — Canada. An experience that is worth having. 

A journey full of Obstacles & Hope (Barriers to Integration).

Through my migration journey, I realized how truly daunting the migration and settlement experience can be especially for immigrants of colour. There are several systemic and structural barriers experienced by immigrants and refugees settling in Canada.These barriers can be summarized under three major headings:

1. Employment and education.

2. Culture and social barriers.

3. Access to significant services such as settlement support, healthcare, child care and transportation.

Social isolation and exclusion is one of the biggest obstacles that newcomers face when they arrive in Canada. Immigrants of colour in particular might also face discrimination, prejudice and racism. Social capital and social network is so crucial to immigrants and newcomers. As a mom, for example, the lack of affordable childcare was a big barrier for me that hindered my ability to work and delayed my career plans — and even volunteer work was not possible without daycare or  junior kindergarten. Back then, kindergarten was part time which is something that is not helpful for working moms. Now our provincial government is looking to bring back the JK and SK part time system and thousands of childcare spots are at risk now due to new provincial changes. These kind of policies and decisions will negatively impact thousands of families and moms out there particularly immigrant families who lack the financial and family network support and can’t afford childcare.  The list of barriers and challenges faced by immigrants does not end.

 This is just to name a few barriers. Like many newcomers to Canada, I faced many to employment-related issues including but not limited to credentials and Canadian experience. More importantly, immigrants of colour might face bias and discrimination when applying for jobs — statistically, women and immigrant women of colour are even at higher risk of facing employment challenges.

 For immigrant students in particular, which my area of work and advocacy is focused, they are faced with many barriers and this quote sums it very well: “The concerns of newly-arrived immigrant students include the need for English language acquisition, the lack of social support networks and of social acceptance, racial labeling and categorization, acquiring new learning styles, post-traumatic stress syndrome, different cultural scripts, and the typical development issues that all students face” (Williams & Butler, 2003, p.9).

I have paused when asked by Farah Nasser at “Living in Colour” if I think immigrants are treated differently based on where they come from, for example (Middle East versus Europe). Two main thoughts came to my mind.

 #1. The representation of immigrants of Colour and how these immigrants are portrayed in mainstream media. I grew up seeing all influential people in Hollywood movies, in business, in politics and different industries as white people. It was very rare to see a political leader who identifies as a person of colour. For example, I am someone who has political aspirations and I aspire to run for office one day but It is hard to visualize myself in that position when I don’t see immigrant women of colour in these positions. Representation really matters — genuine representation and not pulling the diversity card. This community should not be tokenized but rather recognized for their abilities, knowledge and experiences.

#2. This also goes hand-in-hand on how the mainstream media is portraying immigrants from certain backgrounds and identities such as Arab Immigrants, Muslim immigrants, Black and South Asian immigrants. Immigrants of Colour have been treated as outsiders and have been seen as “others.” Their race and identity have been linked to the criminal justice system and terrorism, these immigrants are treated differently based on their race, ethnicity, culture, background and where they come from. When I say media I not only mean newsrooms, but also movies, children’s cartoons, books, etc.

Many studies have shown the correlation and connection between media coverage and attitudes towards immigrants. It is time for our media to be on the right side of history and focus on the positive stories of migration. Media has the power to influence the discourse of migration and attitudes towards immigrants. The first step to change the negative image of immigrants in the media is to change the language being used in the media. Language has the power to transform our ways of thinking about this particular community. Language is used to frame, label and disadvantage a whole population. We should stop labeling immigrants as people that would drain the system, as unwanted invaders or even calling them “illegal aliens.”  We need a paradigm shift in the ways those immigrants are portrayed. We need to focus and shed light on the untold positive side/ stories of migration –these stories deserve to be documented and told.

After living six years in a country that prides itself with its diversity, multiculturalism and acceptance to people from different walks of life, I do believe that immigrants of colour are treated differently. I believe that we live in a society that has a very well established system that treats immigrants of colour as second class citizens. I’ll end up by asking how can we eliminate and remove the systemic and structural barriers to integration that prevent immigrants from fully participating in society and particularly immigrants of colour. How can we help them find their voice and place in the community and their sense of belonging?

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