Immigrants and Refugees: Perspectives on Supportive Policies, Programs, and Practices

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1 Immigrants and Refugees: Perspectives on Supportive Policies, Programs, and Practices Introduction Dr. Miriam J. Stewart Scientific Director CIHR Institute of Gender and Health Canada The purpose of this multi-site study funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada was to understand the meanings of social support for immigrants and refugees in Canada, and to explore the types and adequacy of formal supports offered to immigrants and refugees. The three phases of this study answered the following research questions, from the point of view of service providers and policy influences (phase I), refugees and immigrants (phase II), and service managers, policy makers, advocacy groups, and professional organizations (phase III): 1) What are the challenges faced by immigrants and refugees? 2) What are immigrants and refugees' perceptions of support resources and needs and their methods of accessing/seeking social support and types of support use? 3) What are the mechanisms to strengthen support for immigrants and refugees? This research was conducted in three metropolitan regions of Canada - Edmonton, Toronto, and Vancouver - where immigrants and refugees were concentrated. Somali refugees were chosen because of their presence in all three sites. We also selected Chinese immigrants because they have a long history in Canada and a strong community infrastructure of support services. In Phase I, we interviewed 60 service providers and policy makers involved with immigrant and refugee populations. We interviewed 30 Chinese immigrants and 30 Somali refugees in Phase II. In the final phase, group interviews were conducted with 74 stakeholders from various government departments, advocacy groups, and representatives from professional regulatory bodies and the private sector. Challenges creating stress for Immigrants and Refugees Service providers and policy influencers in all three sites identified the following challenges faced by immigrants and refugees: language, employment, education, finances, racism and discrimination, immigration status, and navigating the system. Newcomers encounter difficulties in coping with culture shock, social isolation, emotional loneliness, cultural understanding,

2 language, communication, and even the weather. The three major challenges reported by immigrants and refugees were language and communication, employment, and family dynamics. Despite these challenges, many newcomers showed resilience through strategies to deal with their problems in Canada. Supports for immigrants and refugees Participants regarded social support as: emergency services (e.g. fire fighters, the police); charity, such as donations; help provided to disadvantaged groups, such as newcomers, the elderly and disabled, as a way of fulfilling the ideal of social justice and equity; help provided to newcomers for initial settlement; and the whole network of available resources. Some participants defined two levels of social support for newcomers: helping them to survive, and facilitating their participation and integration. Various forms of supports, including culturally and linguistically appropriate services that help newcomers integrate into Canadian society, were considered important. Information support (e.g. education) was emphasized, especially when provided in the language of the newcomers, as it is crucial for accessing services and surmounting challenges. Participants also emphasized supports to meet basic needs (e.g. money, food, housing) for refugee populations even more than for other newcomers in the early stages of settlement, because refugees are typically poorer on arrival to Canada. Barriers to supports The major barriers to using formal support services are newcomers' lack of awareness of services as a result of language and economic limitations, social isolation, inadequate information from government or agencies, and newcomers' tendency to stay within their own social/ethnic groups for support. The second major impediment is inaccessibility of social support. Due to inadequate funding and geographical constraints, agencies were unable to provide needed services (e.g., translation/interpretation, financial services, culturally relevant or appropriate services), particularly to refugee groups. Other crucial barriers faced by newcomers include immigration status, unfamiliarity with the configuration of support systems, the waiting period before a newcomer becomes eligible for income support, bureaucratic processes, restricted use of services, racism, and lack of understanding by staff of mainstream agencies. Gender challenges for immigrants and refugees Immigrant and refugee women are more disadvantaged than men because of lack of opportunity to learn language and upgrade skills (childcare, housing responsibilities). This caused them to

3 become economically disadvantaged. Refugee women feel isolated due to language problems. The Somali community is primarily comprised of single mothers with large families - women don't have opportunity to learn English. Immigrant and refugee women in Canada for a long period of time didn't integrate into the wider Canadian community because they had not learned the language or entered the work force. Moreover, they normally could access services in their own language in their neighborhoods. Culturally relevant or appropriate services and programs were lacking. For example, newcomers wanted support networks (women's support groups), and informal orientation programs in a relaxed environment. Somali women who were pregnant or had very young children had difficulties accessing health care and other support services. The need for physicians who speak Somali is even more complicated by the fact that Somalis wanted women physicians to treat Somali women. In the Muslim tradition, women only seek advice and help from other women. Women were reluctant to seek support because traditionally they played a submissive role in the family. Another challenge for some refugees is lack of basic life skills (e.g., parenting) and knowledge (e.g., nutrition). Women faced social isolation as a result of lack of social support for their domestic roles (e.g., domestic and child rearing responsibilities, prescribed by norms in the homeland societies). Problems with childcare are a challenge for both refugees and immigrants. To deal with child care problems, some professional immigrant refugee women gave up their career ambitions and decide to stay home to look after their children. African refugee women tend to focus on child rearing and lack extended family and community support. As their children move on, these women found themselves with weak language skills, isolated, lonely and depressed. One source of conflict between couples emerged from the fact that women refugees or independent immigrants who came from a society/culture where they played a subordinate/subservient role to that of men, sought equal status in Canada. "[A]s soon as they come here they, the ladies, want to be equal to the husbands, and the husbands are not going to put up with that kind of, I mean, for them nothing has changed. They are the only people who could talk in the family, so there's a lot of pressures and stresses in the marriage and in the family..." (Service Provider)

4 Similar conflicts occurred when the family came from a society/culture that tolerates spousal abuse. Some incidents of abuse towards women who came through sponsorship by husband/fiancé, did not speak the language, and did not know their rights were reported. Women who experienced domestic violence were afraid of reporting abuse because of backlash from ethnic community or threats of deportation. There were reported incidents of young Somali men, who came to Canada as children with their single mothers, abusing their mothers when they grew up. These abused women were socially isolated. Refugee claimants, abused women and others feared having to disclose personal information in order to receive services; several sessions were needed to develop trust. Women who spent all day on low-paying jobs to support their spouse who was upgrading his skills and took care of the family in the evenings did not have the opportunity to attend ESL classes. Consequently, they became frustrated and isolated as the spouse found a job and moved on with his life in Canada. "Language and employment are the two that seem to be the most important to women and the two from which they're most often excluded in terms of having access to language and employment assistance. There tends to be in practice, if not in policy, much more emphasis on, if the family has come intact, on the male headed household is the perceived breadwinner and therefore the one to invest in...and yet, it tends to be the women who find jobs more easily." Federal Policy Maker. Participants' Recommendations for Supportive Interventions through Policies, Programs, and Practices Eliminate discrimination against women on basis of color, religion, and traditional dress. Educate women on their rights, domestic abuse and violence; Open immigration up for immigrant women who will get out into the workforce; Set up language classes for Somali women with kids, with daycare attached; Provide daycare so mothers can participate in educational opportunities; Increase subsidies for childcare; Provide a venue for refugee women to get physical activity and improve their physical health;

5 Provide special benefits to newcomers (e.g., childcare, healthcare, and housing subsidies for new arrivals); Newcomers need support and information concerning employment, education, housing, language problems, cultural understanding, health care system, services provided by other social agencies, benefits for seniors, etc.; Provide culturally appropriate services in newcomers' native languages in agencies with service providers who understand and empathize with refugees and immigrants; Provide opportunities to increase community capacity, particularly for women; Create women's support groups for immigrant populations (when they first arrive) composed of peers who are facing the same situation; Success Story Support groups for Somali women enable them to make connections and create a community so they can help one another with childrearing. One policymaker reported that immigrant women created a support group at an immigrant serving agency focused on husbands refusing to pay child support and then sponsoring new wives to come to Canada. This support group led to change in policy at federal level and was empowering for the women.

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