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Recent Immigrants Describe the Stress of Living in a Pandemic

‘I want to get out and meet people and start planning my life in this new country.’

Pratyush Dayal 30 Jul

Pratyush Dayal is a graduate student at UBC’s School of Journalism, Writing and Media. He is completing a practicum at The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter @Pratyush_Dayal_.

“I have more anxiety since I’ve been living here. It’s higher than it’s ever been in my whole life. I never experienced it like this, until I was living in a new country with a baby,” said 25-year-old Chrissy Coba.

Coba lives in Petawawa, Ont., with her three kids and husband. She immigrated to Canada from Missouri last year and received her permanent residency card on Feb. 28. Like many newcomers, she’d dreamed of her new life here, but COVID-19 changed everything.

“Getting permanent residency is supposed to be an exciting time,” said Coba after a pause. “And then, all of this happened.”

Coba hoped to attend a nursing school. She wanted to make new friends and get a job. Now she finds herself struggling to even get out of bed. She was already experiencing postpartum anxiety after having her baby, but the pandemic has made it worse.

“Trying to find my way in a new country whenever you’re used to one is difficult. I have to say that visiting Canada is a lot different than living here.”

The impact of COVID-19 on new immigrants has been grave. According to a Statistics Canada report, recent immigrants are more likely to report symptoms of anxiety, such as feeling nervous or on edge, than other Canadians.

Dorota Blumczynska is president of the non-profit Canadian Council for Refugees and active in supporting immigrants. She said groups that support newcomers are seeing “a resounding chorus of impact at a societal level and a macro level, in terms of tremendous stress, uncertainty, fear and anxiety.”

Dealing with the pandemic is terribly difficult for anyone, Blumczynska said. But COVID-19 has heightened difficulties for all newcomers.

“I find that whenever I drive my car around here, and I have an American plate, people are looking at me like I have three heads,” Coba said. “People give me such dirty and nasty looks.”

Dr. Keith Dobson, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Calgary and researcher for the Mental Health Commission of Canada, said that history shows that stigma can be a long-term consequence of pandemics.

“Certain people can be identified as being sort of dirty or having the pandemic. I’ve heard about this stigma for people from the United States coming into Canada and having American plates. This stigma further leads to increased social isolation, which can lead to increased anxiety and depression,” he said.

The StatsCan report also found that the mental health of more than half of recent immigrants has worsened since the implementation of physical distancing.

Coba said she feels the impact deeply.

“Trying to find friends has been put on the back burner... I mean, I have my husband and my kids. But to say that’s enough? Some days, it’s not. I want to get out and meet people and start planning my life in this new country.”

960px version of ChrissyCobaFamily.jpg
Chrissy Coba with two of her kids. Coba was initially excited to start a new life with her family in Canada after moving from Missouri. ‘And then, all of this happened.’ Photo submitted.

Blumczynska said feelings of isolation are common in newcomer households.

“The immigrant experience gives this terrible emptiness to many that the world has forgotten them,” she said. “I think the emergence of this virus and the need to physically isolate has amplified that sense of being forgotten. I feel that the mental health impacts are much deeper than we’re fully aware of, and they will be long lasting.”

Blumczynska is worried that many newcomers may lack digital literacy or consistent access to devices and Wi-Fi, leaving them not only physically isolated but also digitally isolated.

This disconnection can also affect a new immigrant’s employment status, which Blumczynska said is vital to self-worth and societal integration. Having meaningful employment has a tremendous impact on a person’s mental health, she added.

“It could be deeply discouraging if you can’t find work, and especially work that’s related specifically to your training, education and experience. And so now many newcomers are getting into survival employment just to put bread on the table, but it won’t feed your soul.”

Jack Lees, a construction worker in Vancouver who recently immigrated from Ireland, initially arrived for a job in the hospitality industry in Calgary. When COVID-19 cancelled that prospect, he was pushed into survival employment.

“What I am actually doing now on a daily basis is to move heavy things or lift concrete or clean dirty dusty stuff,” he said. The work isn’t fulfilling for him, “but to pay the bills, I have to keep doing it.”

Service Canada offices were shut across British Columbia when he arrived, and he only got the necessary identification to work about a week and a half ago.

“For almost two months without a social insurance number, I wasn’t able to get paid for the work I was doing. It was very frustrating. There was a lot of uncertainty, I even thought of going back,” said Lees.

Lees is now worried about his ability to find employment at a ski resort in the fall given the possibility of a second wave of the virus. He’s worked through his savings trying to stabilize in Canada.

“If I wasn’t able to get working, I was just going to completely run out of money,” he said. “In that scenario, I wouldn’t even have been able to go home, because I wouldn’t have the money to pay for a flight.”

Lees had trouble creating a bank account and acquiring a phone number, as most offices were shut and wait times on phone lines were a barrier. And the struggle to adjust to Canadian life has added pressure.

“It’s very hard to both do migration and settlement, then quarantine,” said Blumczynska, “and then try to acclimatize yourself to a new society and a new community in an environment where people, quite frankly are afraid of one another, is tremendously challenging.”

Dobson described this as “acculturative stress,” which is associated with moving from one culture to another and adjusting. It can include factors such as language barriers, knowledge of social customs and even one’s ability to navigate public transport.

Blumczynska, also the executive director of the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba, has been working to reduce newcomer stress. After the shutdown in March, her team reached out to newcomers through interpreters, noting the benefits of checking in on someone in their home setting and own language.

“It creates a kind of virtual kinship. We are creating support in their own mother tongues, so that there’s a level of comfort that comes from not only getting the right information, but getting it in a way that is barrier free and acknowledges the value and validity of who you are and your essence as a human being.”

While organizations like IRCOM are doing what they can to offer support, the pandemic has ushered immigrants into a new life that many of us, including Coba, are still not ready to accept.

“People are like, well, this is the new normal, and it probably is, but it worries me... I’m not sure that I’m ready to accept that reality yet. I guess every day I’m just still holding on for a miracle that something changes, and I don’t think that I’m ready to let go of that idea yet.”

Lees has found a sense of sanity within the circle of people at his shared house and by keeping himself engaged at work.

Coba has her own ways of coping. “I literally sit outside and listen to my music, or I clean like a madwoman. That’s like my favourite thing to do. My house is immaculate, and it cures a lot of my stress and anxiety,” she said.

On the days when it’s not blazing hot, she jumps on the trampoline in her backyard with the kids. “I like jumping. It gets my blood flowing and gets me moving. And I’m having fun with the kids. And after a long day, sometimes you just need a little laughter to light up your life.”

Women have been “disproportionately impacted” in the pandemic, said Blumczynska, facing more job loss and uncertainty overall. “Also, in newcomer communities, women are often, and I’ve witnessed this myself, the first to enter into survival employment. So, women are often the first to sort of give up their dreams.”

Coba said her anxiety coupled with social isolation has been draining. She stays in her living room for most of the day, while applying for any new employment opportunities. But recently her children have become a ray of hope for her.

“It’s just me and my kids. And if I didn’t have them, I don’t know what I would do. That’s the only thing that has put some happiness back into the whole process. They’ve been real troopers throughout this.”

As Coba sits in her room with a cup of coffee and her nine-month-old son, she finds herself hopeful. “To see my baby smiling or the baby laughing, just little things like that, that makes my heart happy and smile.”

Right behind her, hung on the wall, is a poster she got from Walmart that reads, “Love where you are.” She finds it quite perfect for her situation.

“It’s all about just embracing change and being open to accept it. Because if you’re not open, I find that you’re going to have a much harder time being able to adapt to where you are. And I find that’s just something that I’ve to come to terms with.”  [Tyee]

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