How to adjust to a new country when it’s adjusting to a pandemic

COVID-19 has disrupted programs, services, and daily life — making transitioning to a new place even more complicated. Here’s how advocates are trying to make Ontario feel like home in unprecedented times
By Meagan Gillmore - Published on Jul 02, 2020
The weekly women’s group at the New Canadians Centre in Peterborough has shifted from two-hour meetings on Thursdays in the centre to one-hour calls on Zoom. (Facebook)

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Felipe Costa understands how stressful the COVID-19 pandemic can be for recent immigrants in Ontario. While the Niagara resident has been settled in Canada since 2016, when he moved from his native Brazil, he has still been losing sleep over his family back home — especially since learning that his parents and grandparents had contracted the novel coronavirus. “I had to sacrifice a bit on my end here, but I had to help them,” says Costa, who sent them a portion of his employment-insurance payments after he was laid off from his retail job at the Brock University campus in St. Catharines.

Costa, whose parents and grandparents have now recovered, channels his experiences into his role as the leader of a weekly mentoring group for newcomers through the Niagara Folk Arts Multicultural Centre. The group, a long-standing program at the centre, moved online during the pandemic; about 20 people attend regularly. “I was waiting for the time that I felt ready to help newcomers when I was established, when I had a routine, and when I felt that I belonged here in a good way,” Costa says of his decision to volunteer with the centre.

Advocates say that, for some newcomers, the lockdown has intensified the trauma of the situations that caused them to come to Canada, underscoring the importance of maintaining access to services — such as those provided through the Niagara Folk Arts Multicultural Centre — during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We had clients who were tortured and isolated, and now they have to face isolation again,” says Valerian Marochko, executive director at London Cross Cultural Learner Centre. The organization provides settlement support and housing for government-assisted refugees. Some have survived genocide. “They’re very resilient people,” he says. “But they are reliving some of the horrors that they had.”

Many organizations have shifted to offering services virtually: English courses have moved online, and some agencies are also preparing to offer language assessments virtually. “The biggest challenge has been not seeing people,” says Tracy Callaghan, executive director of Adult Language and Learning, in Chatham. “We’re in a community-service agency. That’s been really hard — not being able to have people here face to face and adjusting to having to do everything through a computer or a phone.” A few staffers work in the office, where they dispatch client calls to employees who are working from home. But access to reliable bandwidth had been identified as a community concern before the pandemic started, she says: “We’ve done the best job that we can with the devices and the internet-service packages that are available.” With libraries closed, some people go to restaurant parking lots with free Wi-Fi.

In Peterborough, the weekly women’s group at the New Canadians Centre has shifted from two-hour meetings on Thursdays in the centre to one-hour calls on Zoom, a video-conference app. Fabiola Contreras Carrasco, a group facilitator who moved to Canada in 2014 from Mexico City, says that attendance has increased during the pandemic. “I think women have it more difficult in these times,” she says. “We need to do the things that we always do at home, plus the kids are here all the time with us, plus our husbands.” At the meetings, she says, the women have been trying to combat their loneliness. One recently shared that painting was helping her handle the stress of COVID-19. Another offered to give painting lessons. Contreras Carrasco purchased supplies from Dollarama and delivered them to women’s homes. “That was a very, very good moment,” she says.

Contreras Carrasco has benefitted from online activities, too. Her English classes moved online after the pandemic started. Studying can be difficult when she’s at home with her toddler-aged son, but she welcomes the distraction; she worries about how her family in Mexico is doing. “It’s good to have [the online classes], because my mind is entertained on other things, not just the pandemic situation,” she explains. “But I prefer in-person classes. It’s much better for me.”

Elsewhere, entirely new programs have formed during the pandemic. This May, for example, Focus for Ethnic Women, in Waterloo, started offering online yoga classes for women who have been in Canada for fewer than two years. The organization had planned to start eight weeks of physical-activity classes for newcomer women in April as part of a research project with Wilfrid Laurier University studying how physical activity promotes integration for newcomers. COVID-19 disrupted its plans. “We firmly believe that physical activity is very important, especially during stressful times,” says Renu Bhandari, FEW’s executive director. The organization had moved its regular computer-literacy class online and decided to use Zoom for yoga as well. (Wilfrid Laurier University helped pay for an instructor, but the class is separate from the research project the two organizations are undertaking.)

Attendance has held steady at about five participants, though advertising has been a challenge, says Bhandari. Newcomers often learn about programs at community centres, which have been closed due to COVID-19. Privacy restrictions made it hard to find prospective students, because community centres can’t just give others the names of their clients. “These seem to be little things, but they are big hindrances,” Bhandari says, noting that not all newcomers have access to computers or social media.

As the province continues a phased approach to reopening, many organizations are turning their attention to how they will operate after pandemic restrictions end. Plexiglas is being installed at offices, and masks are being purchased for staff. At the Niagara Folk Arts Multicultural Centre, executive director Emily Kovacs is eager to start offering in-person supports for clients struggling with mental health. The organization received significantly more calls related to mental health at the beginning of the pandemic, she notes, and there’s been an increase in calls related to domestic violence throughout. “I’m very eager to wait and find out as soon as possible how we can safely ramp up our in-person services for that,” she says. “Those are the two most crucial pieces: making sure there’s access to mental-health needs and then issues with domestic violence.”

The centre also temporarily closed its social enterprises and stopped community rentals for its hall, causing a significant loss in revenue — an issue facing many non-profits throughout the province. “It’s not an easy place to be at right now for non-profits, because we know that, when the economy is down, our services are up,” she says.

For Focus for Ethnic Women, the reopening plan is clear. “We are going to meet our students, give them a pat on the back for persevering through this,” says Bhandari. “That’s the first thing I’d love to do.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Felipe Costa as a woman. TVO.org regrets the error.

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