Emerging from COVID-19: Canadian immigrants share their experiences during these pandemic times

As the world continues to learn to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, the newcomer and immigrant communities in Canada are facing unique challenges of their own and finding ways to cope.

While more recent arrivals to Canada are learning to deal with new jobs, paying rent, income insecurity and building a social network in this environment of social distancing, some more established immigrants are working hard to keep their businesses going. The challenges created by the pandemic have led to new government assistance programs, a focus on mental health and innovative offerings from settlement agencies serving immigrants.

Working through a lockdown

Oksana Kandiller with her husband Yigit

Like many parents, Ukranian-born Oksana Kandiller has found it hard to respond to her three-year-old asking when she’d be able to meet her friends at daycare  again. Kandiller, her husband and daughter moved to Canada in October 2019 and were just about settling down into their new lives when the lockdown happened.

“The hardest part of this entire experience so far has been that my husband and I haven’t been able to give our child the attention she craves and deserves at this age,” says Kandiller. With daycares shut, the couple is struggling to keep up with office work, studies and household chores, not to mention keeping their child in good spirits. “She’s a very sociable kid and fits in very well at her daycare. She misses her friends and when she asks us tearfully when all this will end, we have no answers for her. It’s hard,” she says.

Kandiller recently found a job as a finance manager with a Toronto non-profit, Aangen, while her husband started an online course in logistics and supply chain management at Seneca College. Finding the job through the Chance for Change Program at Aangen, a program which supports marginalized members of the community by providing them with job opportunities, was a godsend for her.

Kandiller acknowledges that she is luckier than most in finding employment in the field of her choice and that both she and her husband, Yigit, have had the benefit of government support.

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on employment in Canada, with over one million jobs lost in March alone. In response, in April, the federal government created the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), providing $2,000 every four weeks to those have stopped working for reasons related to COVID-19. If the situation continues, those who are eligible can re-apply for CERB every four weeks, for up to a total of 24 weeks till October 2020.

Yigit is also able to access the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB), also launched in April, which provides financial support to post-secondary students and recent post-secondary and high school graduates who are unable to find work due to COVID-19.

“The CESB support that my husband secured was especially useful. He got it at the end of May and it was the first month when we were able to pay our bills without dipping into our savings,” says Kandiller.

The family is hoping that schools will reopen safely for the sake of their daughter who is excited for junior kindergarten in September and that Yigit will land a stable, well-paying job when his course ends in August.

Pivoting in a pandemic

Chef Muralitharan Thamba

Stunning photos of aesthetically-plated cuisine make Sri Lankan-born chef Muralitharan Thamba’s Instagram account a delight. Based in Ajax, Ontario, Thamba has been running a successful catering business, Brindleberry, for the last few years. However, the pandemic has forced him to cancel more than 20 events including weddings and receptions, resulting in losses that amounted to hundreds of dollars.

“For the past four years we had made a mark when it came to major events…. This pandemic has been tricky and problematic for not just me but for everyone who is trying to operate a small business, regardless of the industry. But, despite all the obstacles the pandemic brought on, this crisis gave my team and me an opportunity to explore avenues that we hadn’t considered in the past.”

Thamba and his team had to pivot quickly to save the business that he’s set up with so much love and passion. The catering service started providing their customers with delivery and pick-up options for pre-orders. It also benefited from the timely relief provided by the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program (CECRA) – a benefit for small businesses in Ontario that will help those impacted by the pandemic keep afloat until the economy reopens fully. Under this program, Thamba has to pay only 25 per cent of the rent for April to July.

His team has not only started on the road to recovery but is also giving back to the community. “We at Brindleberry, have partnered up with various local organizations in the community and have been assisting with preparing over 1,000 meals for frontline workers to date. This gives me and my team the satisfaction of being able to help out in a time of need for those that risk everything to help the country get back to where it once was,” he says.

Staying social virtually

For most immigrants and newcomers in Canada, community centres, libraries, and recreation and cultural centres are a lifeline that connects them to the community at large. These venues serve as a safe space for sharing their experiences, meeting mentors, participating in social and cultural programs and getting familiar with their neighbourhood.

With the country going into lockdown mode in March, immigrants experienced an acute sense of loss and disconnection. Though some libraries in Toronto and the GTA have now started to offer online versions of their in-person programs, services are not back up to a 100 per cent.

Settlement agencies have taken their services online to keep the social connection alive. “For immigrant families, there is already a sense of disconnect when they come to a new country – everything is new, some are not familiar with English and now with this pandemic, this sense of isolation and loneliness is heightened,” says Hui Geng, manager of the Canada Connects program at North York Community House (NYCH), an agency supporting newcomers with their settlement in many ways and helping them feel at home in Canada.

The organization’s social mentorship program has been connecting established volunteers with newcomers so that they may practise their English-speaking skills through Zoom meetings. The fact that these seasoned volunteers are immigrants themselves makes it easier for newcomers to connect beyond just learning; they are able to open up about their feelings.

A recent Statistics Canada report revealed that immigrants were more likely than Canadian-born individuals to have higher levels of concern about preserving social ties (44 per cent vs. 30 per cent) and about the ability to support one another during and after the pandemic.

It’s not surprising then that a popular program at NYCH is the virtual conversation circle. In April, COVID, and the fears and concerns surrounding it, was a hot topic.

However, it’s not all serious conversations. Fridays are reserved for virtual tours to popular Canadian destinations or virtual movie nights, giving participants a great opportunity to break the cycle of isolation.

Kandiller, who does not have extended family in Canada, understands this need to seek out community during this time. “We as a family have started valuing social connections so much right now, since we’ve not had it for almost three months!” she says. “Now we have ventured out gradually, made some friends in the neighbourhood, and our kids are playing together — socially distanced, but it’s something.

“On Canada Day, we went to Niagara Falls, our first trip since we came to Canada,” she adds. “It was a dream come true. Once this is over, I will chase every opportunity to go out!”