The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed and exacerbated existing challenges and vulnerabilities across Canada’s immigration system. It has placed an uneven burden on refugees, including temporary halts on Canada’s resettlement efforts and has increased their risk of COVID-19 infection.
Beyond higher infection rates, how did lockdowns, school closures and the economic downturn impact refugees who were recently resettled in Canada before the pandemic began?
In our two recently published studies based on interviews with Yazidi and Syrian families, we find that the emotional, social and economic toll of COVID-19 unsettled families and reinforced pre-migration trauma.
Between spring and winter 2020, our research teams interviewed 38 Syrian refugees and 23 Yazidi refugees in three Canadian cities: Calgary, London and Fredericton.
Our findings showed that, for many refugee families, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing structural inequalities. The pandemic effectively eliminated progress in employment, social connections, language development and access to suitable housing they had made since arriving in Canada.
Falling behind, feeling unsettled
“It’s like I am back to square one. It’s like I am in my first month in Canada. It took me almost three years to make all the progress and now I lost it again. It makes me very scared for my family’s future,” says Gulroz, a Yazidi mother, when talking about the pandemic.
Gulroz is not alone. Many families felt like they were “back to square one.”
The families we interviewed were financially vulnerable before the pandemic. So when the pandemic brought job losses, disruptions to schooling (for both children and adults) and increased expenses (like higher food costs), people felt a growing sense of hopelessness.
The sense of falling behind loomed large, especially in areas of language acquisition, employment and housing prospects — these impacts were felt more acutely by women who experienced disproportionate care work responsibilities.
Social isolation and reliving trauma
The implementation of local lockdowns led to intense feelings of social isolation for recent refugee families who lived in inadequate, crowded housing conditions with minimal access to green space. As Elham, a Syrian refugee, explained, “We do not have a balcony.… During the [lockdown], we wanted to breathe some fresh air [but] we were always inside the apartment.”
Elham’s frustration illustrates how the closure of public green spaces led to feelings of claustrophobia for people living in small apartments without access to balconies, backyards and residential green spaces.
Many families used the imagery of prison, suffocation and captivity to describe the lockdown. Peri, a Yazidi single mother, says, “It’s like, I am back in that little room where the monster who took me kept me, locked in chains. Sometimes I can’t breathe. All the progress I made in my head to feel better is gone now. I feel like it’s the first day of landing here when I kept having visions of my captivity.”
COVID-19 restrictions and other governmental measures were necessary to contain the pandemic. However, an unintended fallout was that, for many refugee families, lockdowns increased mental health challenges. Our interviewees were triggered as memories of pre-migration trauma were reignited.
Hope and resilience
Despite the enormous challenges they faced, the refugees we spoke with are determined to pursue their dreams of suitable employment and homeownership. They also expressed gratitude and a sense of security for the “sanctuary” of their lives in Canada — most believed living in Canada allowed them to avoid the extreme effects of the pandemic in their countries of origin.
Many of our interviewees were part of community engagement programs that made space for resiliency in their lives throughout the pandemic.
Some Yazidi women in Calgary engaged in an urban farming project, Land of Dreams — a place that enabled building new relationships during the pandemic. As they connected with the land, the women shared food they grew in the farm and exchanged cultural knowledge with other newcomer communities.
Vian, a Yazidi mother says:
“… we came from a small village where we used to wake up very early in the morning, go to the farm, plant our vegetables, water them and feed our animals. It was a very beautiful and simple life and I liked it so much. When I go Land of Dreams, I remember those days and feel like I still am living in those moments and nothing bad [has] happened to us.”
Land of Dreams shows that community-led approaches can support refugees during and beyond the pandemic. Our research highlights the need for governments to include refugees in COVID-19 recovery responses that address the disproportionate burden the pandemic has placed on refugees and other marginalized peoples. Many refugees feel like the pandemic has caused them to fall behind and they know what structural changes are needed to catch up.
We must meaningfully include newcomers and refugees in the formulation of policies that address structural constraints that affect them during times of crisis.
Fawziah Rabiah-Mohammed, PhD Student in Health Sciences at Western University co-authored this article.