Voices of Recent Latina Immigrants and Refugees:Effects of Budget Cuts on Their Settlement Experiences

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1 Voices of Recent Latina Immigrants and Refugees:Effects of Budget Cuts on Their Settlement Experiences by Neita Kay Israelite, Faculty of Education, York University Arlene Herman, Department of Sociology, York University Yasmin Khan, Community Social Planning Council of Toronto Rosamaria Andino, York Hispanic Centre Veronica Pacini-Ketchabaw, University of Toronto Synopsis This study explored the perspectives of eight Latina immigrants and refugees on their settlement experiences and the impact of governmental social policy changes and budget cutbacks on this process. The qualitative research design included four focus group sessions and individual follow-up interviews. The results indicated that settlement has been very difficult for these women, primarily because of economic factors and a lack of programs to facilitate the settlement process. Social policy changes and budget cutbacks have exacerbated the situation. The findings support the need for a comprehensive approach to providing services for immigrants and refugees with a concomitant commitment to increases, rather than decreases, in funding. Brief Overview Nearly 40% of all Toronto residents are immigrants and refugees (Citizenship and Immigration Canada, 1996). Despite this fact, since the Progressive Conservatives took office in 1995, at least 40 programs for immigrants and refugees in Toronto have been cancelled, including 20 programs providing immigrant and refugee settlement services (Ontario Social Safety Network, 1996). The reduction of services formerly provided by cultural organizations, information services, settlement services, ESL programs, and multilingual social assistance and cultural interpreter programs raise questions about the overall impact of these policy shifts on the settlement experience. Few studies, however, have looked at the effects of budgetary cutbacks on the lives of immigrants and refugees as they resettle in Canada. In particular, there has been little research on how current social policies affect the life circumstances of recent women immigrants and refugees. In our study we explored the recent settlement experiences of Latina immigrants and refugees in Toronto, and the impact of governmental social policy changes and budget cutbacks on this process. Members of the research team were: Neita Israelite and Arlene Herman, the two coinvestigators; Yasmin Khan of the York Office - Community Social Planning Council of Toronto, our primary community partner; Rosamaria Andino, a Latina health services provider; and Veronica Pacini-Ketchabaw and Carolina Berinstein, two Latina graduate 1

2 students. Ms. Khan's role was to coordinate the participation of the York Hispanic Centre and other agencies serving Hispanic immigrants and refugees. Ms. Andino worked as the focus group facilitator; Ms. Pacini-Ketchabaw was the project coordinator and assistant group facilitator; Ms. Berinstein worked on the project in the initial planning phase. Eight immigrant and refugee women from Mexico and Central and South America participated in the study. The women represented a variety of family units, including single-parent and two-parent families. All had children; most were on public assistance. Although the women spoke some English, all felt more comfortable communicating in Spanish. The women participated in four focus group sessions conducted in Spanish. In Session 1, the facilitator invited the women to describe the impact of current economic and social policies on their settlement experiences. Sessions 2 and 3 entailed a more detailed exploration of the issues raised in Session 1, as well as discussion of additional relevant topics. In Session 4, the women met with Latina immigrants who had participated in a previous pilot study to discuss issues of mutual concern. Following the culmination of the focus group phase of the study, each of the women participated in individual follow-up interviews. Research Results The women identified three major barriers to settlement, each of which had been exacerbated by the budget cuts and social policy changes undertaken by the current government. The first was access to information. The women said that they did not have enough information about where to get help and the kinds of programs and services that were available. They attributed part of this problem to not knowing where or how to get the information they needed. Another difficulty was that many materials, such as pamphlets, brochures, and announcements, were not printed in Spanish. Ramona s comments illustrate a major problem and a possible solution: Mi pregunta es porque el estado canadiense quien le dio la residencia y le dijo que estaba apto para vivir aqui no le da a alguien que lo oriente cuando llegue a este pais.? Otra vez volvemos a la falta de informacion el cual es el punto fundamental. Una vez que uno llega aca en forma legal deberia haber una asesoria. Cuando te dan tu visa te deberian dar un paquete con toda la informacion. Despues cuando llegas al pais te deberian dar mas informacion. My question is, why doesn t the Canadian government, that gave them the residency and told them that they re eligible to live here, doesn t give them someone that can orient them when they arrive in the country. Once again we come back to the lack of information as being the fundamental point. Once someone arrives here legally, there should be a helper. When they give you your visa, they should give you a package with all of the information. Later when you get to the country, they should give you more information. 2

3 The second barrier was access to economic resources. The women reported difficulty in finding, paying for, and maintaining affordable housing; providing adequate food for their children; and paying for necessities such as electricity, clothing, transportation, and telephone. Scarcity of affordable childcare prevented the women from obtaining and maintaining jobs that could ease their economic situations. Elena s comments show some of the economic problems faced by immigrant women on social assistance: Y con los que nos dan no se puede hacer nada. A mi me dan $890 y pago $550 de casa. Con lo demas, en panales no mas se me va un monton de plata. Y despues la comida de los ninos. Uno tiene que empezar a recorrer todo Toronto, todos los food banks, todos los lugares a ver quien nos a va ayudar. Y eso no es justo porque a uno lo hace sentir mal. And with what they give you, you can t do anything. They give me $890 and I pay $550 for rent. With the rest, a lot of money is gone only with diapers. And then the food for the children. One has to start to go through all of Toronto, all of the food banks, every place to see who is going to give us help. And that is not fair, because it makes someone feel bad. The third barrier was access to English-language instruction. The women knew that their poor knowledge of English limited their vocational opportunities; yet factors such as immigrant status, lack of suitable childcare, inability to afford transportation, and having to work to support their families prohibited them from learning the language. Marlena described her difficulties in enrolling in English classes: Nunca me aceptaban a los lugares que fui para aprender ingles. Fui a muchos lugares, pedi ayuda y no me aceptaban. Me decian que con mis papeles no podia porque en mis papeles decia refugee claim. Me decian usted todavia no tiene status aqui. Usted no puede estudiar. Asi que estoy aqui 7 meses y apenas estoy estudiando un mes en la escuela. They never accepted me in the places that I wanted to learn English. I went to many places, asked for help, and they didn t accept me. They told me that with my papers I couldn t because in my papers said refugee claim. They told me: you still don t have status here. You can t study. So, I m here 7 months and I ve been barely studying for one month. Most of the women said they had experienced depression, extreme isolation, and serious marital and family problems as a consequence of their difficult settlement experiences. The facilitator also noted that much discussion on these topics focussed on issues of family violence and abuse. Some women found ethno-specific agencies to be a major source of support during these stressful periods. Consuela shared her emotional reaction to the hardships she was facing: He llegado a veces a sentirme muy deprimida, muy mal, quisiera morirme, quisiera que se acabara todo. Hasta he pensado en matarme yo y mi hija. Me siento ahogada. No se que hacer. 3

4 I ve gotten to the point of being very depressed, very sad, wanting to die, wanting everything to end. I ve even thought of killing my daughter and myself. I feel like I m drowning. I don t know what to do. The above findings vividly illustrate how difficult the settlement process can be for immigrant and refugee women of limited means and their families. Nevertheless, despite their serious problems, the women in our study were thankful for the political, social, and economic stability that Canada offers. All expressed a strong desire to become contributing members of Canadian society. They said they wanted only to be given the opportunity to develop their abilities and show Canada the many strengths they have to offer: Con tantas abilidades que poseemos, ya sea hombres o mujeres, podriamos salir adelante. Que vean que nosotros como hispanos podemos llegar a ser mucho por este pais. With all the abilities that we possess, be it man or woman, we can go forward. That they see that we, as Hispanics, are able to do a lot for this country. Contributions to Policy Development The results of our study suggest that governmental social policy changes and budget cutbacks have exacerbated the already difficult situation that recent immigrants and refugees face. These findings highlight the need for a comprehensive approach to the integration of new immigrants into Canadian society. The experience of our participants shows that the current system of resources and support for new immigrants is inadequate and greatly hinders their ability to become contributing members of society. To rectify this situation, a multi--faceted holistic approach is necessary. This approach would include the provision of adequate housing, childcare, education, training, and financial resources to ensure the physical and psychological well-being of immigrant and refugee women and their families Dissemination Activities Because the data analysis was only recently completed, there have been no papers disseminated to date. We are currently in the process of writing papers to submit for publication and preparing for two presentations on our findings. Nature of the Research Collaboration We worked closely with Yasmin Khan and the York Office of the Community Social Planning Council of Toronto in planning this project. The following community agencies participated in recruitment of participants: York Hispanic Centre, York Community Services, COSTI Immigrant Aid Services, City of York Child and Family Centre, and the Learning Enrichment Foundation. The York Hispanic Centre was instrumental in helping us carry out the research. Ms. Andino, a board member of the York Hispanic Centre, was the group facilitator. Other women associated with the York Hispanic Centre assisted on the project as well. 4

5 Training Opportunities Provided One community research assistant and two student research assistants participated in the project. The community research assistant, Ms. Andino, facilitated the focus groups and participated in all phases of the study. Ms. Berinstein, a graduate student in social work, helped with the initial planning and subject selection phase of the project; Ms. Veronica Pacini-Ketchabaw, a graduate student in education, coordinated the data collection phase and contributed much to the data analysis. The research assistants participated in presentations and discussions on conducting focus groups and analysing qualitative data and were active members of the research team. References Citizenship and Immigration Canada (1996). A profile of immigrants in Canada [on-line]. Hostname: cicnet.ingenia.com. Ontario Social Safety Network (1996). Teaching impacts coalition: Bits and bytes. 5

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