The COVID-19 pandemic has presented an unprecedented challenge for individuals and families, both in Canada and around the world. Over the past 15 months, the health and economic impacts of the pandemic on the general Canadian population have been well studied and documented. However, the immediate and long-term effects of the novel coronavirus on newcomers to Canada are less clear.
Dr. Setareh Ghahari, an Associate Professor in the School of Rehabilitation Therapy, is working to fill this gap. An immigrant herself, Dr. Ghahari knows how difficult moving to a new country can be and how important it is to feel understood and supported. Consequently, when an international group of researchers developed a survey tool to investigate impacts of COVID-19 on undocumented migrants in Switzerland, she saw an opportunity to implement a similar project in Canada.
Dr. Ghahari’s study uses the Swiss-developed survey tool to collect information on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected Canada’s newcomers’ food security, employment prospects, and general health. Once complete, Dr. Ghahari will be able to compare results between different groups of newcomers in Canada and between countries.
“My research is about accessing health and services for marginalized populations, including immigrants and refugees,” says Dr. Ghahari. “Over the past year, numerous initiatives have attempted to understand the extent to which COVID-19 has impacted Canadians, and many have called for increased services and support for vulnerable populations. Yet, often missing from these statements and reports, are the struggles unique to marginalized groups, notably for newcomer populations in Canada.”
The Three Major Challenges Newcomers Face
Newcomers face three major challenges. First, “housing insecurity is a prominent concern,” Dr. Ghahari says. When survey participants were asked “If you lost your house today, do you have a family member or a close friend that you could go and live with?,” most respondents answered “No.” This barrier reflects employment and financial instability that, when paired with reduced family ties and acute isolation, results in few social supports in a new country.
A second major factor often impacting newcomers is a significant language barrier and its impact on their access to news and updates. “Reading or listening to news stories in a new language is a skill that takes time to develop,” explains Dr. Ghahari. Those who are new to a language may struggle to receive daily updates that are often critical for health, safety, and community engagement.
Finally, many immigrants leave behind loved ones in their countries of origin, introducing feelings of helplessness caused by struggles to aid them from afar. “Newcomers often worry, in part for themselves, but also for those who are back home,” says Dr. Ghahari.
Emerging Trends in the Pandemic for Newcomers to Canada
There are several trends that Dr. Ghahari expects to see emerge based on the initial data that she has reviewed. Like many Canadians, newcomers have lost jobs and income during the pandemic. Early results indicate that food insecurity, employment insecurity, and high levels of anxiety and depression during the pandemic are more common among this group. In addition to exploring how newcomers compare to the general population in coping with these challenges, Dr. Ghahari will explore how different groups of newcomers, including immigrants, refugees, undocumented peoples, and international students compare to each other.
Dr. Ghahari’s research could present a major opportunity to inform policy and increase support for newcomers to Canada. “I’m hopeful that this study will help us open up public discourse to better understand how to bring forth tangible support for newcomers amidst the wake of COVID-19, and the aftermath that is yet to come. My first goal once this is completed will be to present my findings to the general public and to policymakers to improve funding for settlement organizations,” says Dr. Ghahari.
One in five Canadians is an immigrant, yet their stories are not part of the dominant narrative in Canada. Dr. Ghahari’s research is positioned to change this by providing concrete evidence of the needs of newcomers, and with it, a voice to call for change.
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