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Resilience in action: How newcomers are finding purpose and keeping positive during the pandemic

Toronto newcomer Dmytro Ilchuk struggles with sleepiness early each morning as he trudges to the subway on his two-hour commute to Scarborough’s COVID Isolation Centre. Pink streaks inch across the sky, illuminating the row of red brick houses. And every day, Ilchuk’s foggy brain jolts awake as he registers a message in a window along his route. A giant lopsided heart with the words “Thank you frontline workers.”

The appreciation still boosts his morale and pumps him with purpose. “I’m doing something really important in my life,” says Ilchuk. “I feel like I belong to Canada.”

Ilchuk’s ability to spot the positive in the midst of a pandemic is impressive but not unusual.

About 40 per cent of the general population copes adaptively with misfortune, and 10 per cent become even stronger after battling with adversity, says Professor Michael Ungar, director of Dalhousie University’s Resilience Research Centre and author of Change Your World.

Resilience is higher amongst immigrants, says Ungar. “While a disaster like COVID-19 can shake us to our core, it can also boost our resilience,” he says. “We need a disruptive event to look at our fast-paced lives and reconsider our priorities.”

As we search for purpose in the pain, we find ways to contribute, picking up groceries for a frail neighbour or checking in on an isolated senior. We also invest more value in our existing relationships and try harder to expand our community networks. These connections give us a sense of belonging and enhance our ability to cope, he says.

A positive attitude is also helpful, says Ungar. We should avoid obsessing over potential catastrophes and instead appreciate what we do have. If we’re feeling unhappy, watching a soppy movie or cooking a favorite food can boost our mood.

A lot of newcomers to Canada have been especially hard hit by the pandemic, says the expert. “They tend to have much more vulnerable employment.” Another challenge for some recent arrivals is that they might not have recreated the supportive social networks left behind at home.

On the other hand, newcomers who have successfully adapted to immigration – uprooting their lives in their home country, leaving their comfort zone, and starting over in a new country – have already mastered some of the tools of resilience, says Ungar. Just the very act of having navigated through tough times helps people steel themselves to deal with further challenges. “Having adversity in your life, you do learn to keep it in perspective,” he says.

Immigrants are often skilled at using Skype and other virtual platforms to remain connected with loved ones from their native country. As well, they’re often old hands at building new affiliations with the members of their diaspora.

“Often when people come to a new country, they…attend (their) …faith communities much more than back in their country of origin,” says Ungar. These offer practical information, an opportunity to use their mother tongue, and a sense of belonging.

Many Canadian newcomers are demonstrating resilience during the pandemic by finding their own unique solutions to deal with the challenges caused by the situation. Meet three of them: frontline worker Dmytro Ilchuk from Ukraine, salesman Puneet Rai from India and long-term care home worker Antanina Hulko from Belarus.

Dmytro Ilchuk: Frontline worker Ilchuk found camaraderie at his workplace, made connections through volunteering initiatives and combatted stress through self-care.
Thirty-six-year-old newcomer Dmytro Ilchuk is no stranger to hardship. When the Ukrainian native came to Canada in 2017 in search of a better life, he was overwhelmed by culture shock – self-conscious about his accent, rejected by locals and unable to land a suitable job.

“No one helped me…I almost lost my hope,” he says. Finally, a librarian handed him an employment counsellor’s business card, which led to a position as a research assistant (and later as an analyst) in the court system. Shortly afterwards, Ilchuk began volunteering with other newcomers, and his social life soared. Ilchuk’s triumph over his trials fortified him against subsequent hardships.

“When you have experience with change and crisis…you know how to find solutions,” he says.

That resilience came in handy when the City of Toronto employee was deployed to a COVID-19 isolation centre in March. In his new position, Ilchuk has been supporting nursing staff and tending to residents either recovering from the virus or at risk of contracting it.

It was a tough assignment. Ilchuk worked gruelling 12-hour day and night shifts, scouring every surface with disinfectants so powerful they made his clothes reek for hours afterwards. The job’s psychological demands were even greater. Because of the situation’s urgency, there was no time for training, and Ilchuk feared that the virus might slip through his grasp, harming himself or his colleagues.

“Employers could fire me,” he says. “There was plenty of pressure on my shoulders.”

But the frontline worker also found camaraderie in the trenches of the war against COVID. As the isolation centre resisted outbreaks, staff began bonding, sharing their lives and trading treats at mealtimes. ¨We became a family,” says Ilchuk, whoforged many new friendships with his colleagues and clients. The work also filled him with pride. ¨I feel honored…to be part of a team … protect(ing) the city,” he says.

Ilchuk made more connections through several volunteer initiatives, linking Canadian newcomers to services and teaching English to Ukrainian veterans via Skype. Many of his beneficiaries keep in touch afterwards, sending him messages of gratitude. ¨It’s very satisfying,” says Ilchuk.

Ilchuk has also been combatting stress through self-care. He began cooking healthy meals and jogging after dark at a closed children’s playground. Sometimes he’s combined the workouts with phone calls to loved ones. “It … made me forget about COVID,” he says.

Ilchuck has also learned to make the most of his limited spare time. “If I have 20 minutes…to listen to music…it’s a gift.”

Today Ilchuk feels fortified by the lessons he’s learned during the pandemic. He knows how to control what lies within his power, and how to stay calm during chaos. He’s demonstrated leadership in his volunteer work and earned respect at his job.

“This knowledge and experience will lead me to good opportunities in the future,” says Ilchuk. ¨I feel…prepared for 2021,” he says.

Puneet Rai: Drawing on his inner strength, marketing professional Rai found ways to overcome challenges with finding work and an unexpected health crisis.
Thirty-four-year-old newcomer Puneet Rai, originally from India, has also weathered his share of adversity. In 2009, the salesman with an MBA in marketing accepted a lucrative position in Kuwait. However, the young man who had never left the family home had trouble relating to the locals in the conservative country. ¨It was really difficult,” he says.

But the chatty newcomer eventually befriended his expat colleagues, and the tight-knit group spent their weekends exploring beaches and malls by day and hosting house parties at night.

In 2019, Rai encountered a new set of challenges when he immigrated to Canada in search of a
permanent haven for himself and his young family. (In Kuwait it’s impossible for non-natives to earn citizenship). Although Rai churned out up to 40 applications a day, the recent arrival failed to land a sales job offering a salary sufficient to support his wife and young child.

Things got worse after COVID crashed onto the scene in March. Rai had been selected for a “dream job” in his field, but the spot was put on hold indefinitely in the wake of the pandemic. Other companies followed suit, barring their doors to new hires.

Rai drew on the inner strength gleaned from his first relocation. “I know how to do things (my) self, find… everything for (my)self,” he says. His relentless networking and cold calls eventually won him a spot at Edusity, a start-up company marketing an online learning tool.

But the post didn’t bring smooth sailing. Selling a new product is tricky at the best of times, but even tougher during an uncertain era. For the first time in his life the savvy salesman worried about meeting his targets. His blood pressure soared alongside his anxiety, and he had to start medication to bring it under control.

His health crisis prompted Rai to reassess his priorities. “Getting this medication…at such a young age…scares me,” he says. So, he overhauled his lifestyle, reducing portion sizes at mealtime, and waking up early every morning to practise yoga. More importantly, he stopped whipping himself to chase the standard of living he’d once enjoyed in the Middle East. “I’ve learned now that whatever you have you have to be satisfied,” he says.

Rai also found solace from loved ones. As his local networks dwindled with the onset of the pandemic, Rai used Skype more often with his parents and friends in India and Kuwait. “The bond(s) never broke, at the end of the day we’re together,” he says.

Like Dmytro Ilchuk, Rai too has been fortified in the forge of COVID. While he used to burn through his earnings, his temporary career slump has spurred him to save more and spend less.

Rai is also closer to his wife than ever before. ¨We’ve been through thick and thin…she’s always there to support me,” he says. The pair have begun an Instagram page to dispense advice and hope to followers abroad (Instagram.com/expatdiariescanada).

But perhaps the greatest change lies in the immigrant’s more mellow attitude. “You have ups and downs,” says Rai. “But you have to get over
them.”

Antanina Hulko: Long-term care home worker Hulko’s experience on the frontlines as a surgeon back home and her desire to help people keeps her going.

Thirty-three-year-old Antanina Hulko, a surgeon in her native Belarus, came to Canada on her own in December 2019 as an international student and has finished her one-year college degree in behavioural sciences. Hulko says she is fortunate to have her sister here.

The pandemic hit just a few months after she landed in the country and she felt compelled to help out in whatever way possible. “Helping out wasn’t a question for me. I did this back in Belarus as a surgeon,” she says. “I have always been on the frontlines and also had night shifts in the emergency room.”

Hulko learned to do her best in the situation given that COVID-19 was not in her plans. She reached out to different hospitals and nursing homes and started working in a longtermcare facility. “It’s my nature from the very beginning,” she says. “That’s why I chose this profession [as a surgeon]. I feel the passion and energy to help other people and even when I am exhausted, it is my belief that I can help people –this is what pushes me.”

Hulko says she has learned a lot from this challenging situation. “This experience and exposure and close interaction with the vulnerable population [in the long-term care home] has helped me step back from my ambition and high goals and reminded me about the basic important things,” she says. “We are all humans. It’s time to help with simple things.”

Hulko has found strength in this time through her strong beliefs and support from her family. “It is my belief that all of us have the power
inside; we have to just be open and brave and honest with ourselves about our strengths and weaknesses,” she says. “And of course, my family…I have conversations with my parents back home through Skype or video. Nothing can replace your parents,” she says. “My sister and her husband are also here [in Canada]. Family is most important.”

Her advice is for newcomers is to use the resources within to get through these challenging times. “I believe that we all have something inside
– everyone has to find resilience in themselves and practice it so it will grow in you.”

Hulko highlights the importance of connecting with community. “We are not alone; we are in a community and have to offer our help and reach out. We don’t have to be a superhero. We have to be open and help each other. We can overcome everything.”

Hulko’s long-term goal is to work towards her medical license in Canada. “I have to study and pass different exams…and go a long way. I definitely hope to be of use.” She is currently in the process of becoming a permanent resident.