International Migrants Day: Growing Networks to Support Refugees in Overcoming Isolation

Successful immigrant and refugee resettlement involves so much more than physical movement and a new address. Once landed, there are many challenges and obstacles that directly impact the overall well-being and future achievement of the new residents. Today is International Migrants Day, and as the world grapples with unprecedented forced migration of refugees, it is critical that we pause to understand the implications and responsibilities for all of us.

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As a result of civil war that began in March of 2011, nearly 9 million Syrians have fled their homes and have sought safety elsewhere in the world, making it a global humanitarian crisis.

These Syrian refugees, not unlike refugees from other countries, are faced with numerous tragedies: loss of family, friends, loss of community, a sense of place, and a sense of belonging. They endure substandard living conditions for months, or even years, before relocating, and they are faced with the hard truth that they may never be able to return home.

What’s more, once a refugee is accepted to their new country, their struggles are far from over. They may be safe from immediate physical danger, but they face a whole host of new challenges.

Drawing from 138 interviews, a 2007 study from the University of Birmingham regarding the mental health and stress faced by refugees and asylum seekers in the UK clearly demonstrates the unique experiences of those settling in a new country. The struggle of adapting to this unfamiliar life can be summed up by a question posed by one Afghani respondent:

“Imagine when you go to a country where you are new and you don’t know anybody and you don’t have any relative and no friends. You don’t know anything about their culture and nothing from the language. Would that be easy to live or hard?”

This question highlights a myriad of social and economic barriers that refugees encounter when they land in a new country – a lack of understanding of common languages and customs, limited financial resources and confusion regarding basic services. These socio-economic challenges also vary for different groups of refugees, as privately sponsored individuals and families have “increased likelihood of connections with established networks of friends and family,” perhaps making the process a little less daunting than it is for other refugee claimants.

Unfortunately, the issue of racism often accompanies large refugee resettlement initiatives. The Syrian refugee crisis is regrettably associated with Islamic State terrorism and hate crimes are on the rise— making it an even more anxious situation for incoming refugees.

In November, for example, a Peterborough mosque was destroyed in fire as an act of hate. However, in an effort to combat these sentiments and strengthen community, Peterborough’s Beth Israel Synagogue offered Muslims a place to pray, with the Synagogue’s president declaring, “We may be different religions, but we’re all one people and in times like this we have to stick together.”

Social isolation and loneliness are also significant challenges for refugees. In the same Birmingham University study, a Sudanese interviewee explained how language affects their sense of social connection, saying “Mental health is a problem, because you are here alone. You do not have any communication with them (other people in the society).” Another Sudanese woman stated, “It was terrible when I first came… Like I was in prison. I had no friends.”

The topic of isolation and a lack of social connectedness among refugees in Canada was explored recently by The Globe and Mail when they explained that, “Across Canada, even in famously multicultural Toronto, there’s little perceptible Syrian diaspora.” The article clarified that Syrians often remain cautious of one another because of “long-time surveillance and oppression of the Assad government”. Without a strong community network in their new country, Syrians may find the process of resettlement even more difficult.

Finally, it is important to recognize that accompanying the refugees are recent memories of war and loss. As a result, Canadian experts claim that refugees are high-risk for mental health issues, including depression and substance abuse. Of the 25,000 Syrian women children and families arriving in Canada over the next several months, some 80 percent will be dealing with “powerful mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

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Of course, the issues facing Syrian refugees upon arrival in Canada are no different than the issues faced by refugees from other countries. Language barriers, access to health care, employment opportunities and community involvement and connection are factors that all refugees and immigrants meet head on. The aforementioned studies and reports reinforce the need to ensure that support and connections are in place for the new residents beyond providing for their immediate physical needs.

In British Columbia, where there are over 31,000 available positions in the field of engineering and geoscience, the province’s Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists (APEGBC) is working to find solutions to fill these positions. The organization is helping to remove employment barriers for professionals trained overseas – including refugees and immigrants. According to their news release, the APEGBC “is working on improving recognition of credentials for internationally trained professionals” and they are “considering solutions that will allow [the association] to address unique challenges anticipated with respect to refugee applicants who have no academic documentation.” By actively working to solve the problem of credential acceptance, the APEGBC is contributing to a win-win situation for Canada’s economy and refugee employment.

In addition, Settlement.Org is a government-sponsored website devoted to helping refugees with every aspect of their new lives in Canada, and their Health section offers a number of resources relating to mental health and outreach. They also have a Community section, with links and suggestions for getting involved. What’s more, every bit of information on their website can be read in several languages including Arabic. The YMCA also offers a whole host of immigration services, including guest speakers, information sessions and volunteer opportunities – and they offer support in nearly 60 languages.

The University of British Columbia has begun work on a mobile application aimed at helping Syrian refugees in Canada cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. Similar apps have already had success in refugee camps – but the challenge will be to tailor the new app to the incoming groups.

Tackling the issue of social isolation and cultural adjustment, the Canadian Council of the Arts has teamed up with Sun Life Financial to offer refugees free access to arts events in their new communities. The program will begin in April, after the refugees have had time to settle into their new lives. Giving Syrian refugees access to arts and culture in Canada will not only help raise spirits, but provide opportunities for human connection, as well.

These examples are an important part of recognizing and responding to the mental health and socio-economic challenges facing refugees. Beyond institutional responses, there are important opportunities for individuals to become involved offering a hand or lending an ear of friendship and support. Such opportunities are important to give and moreover receive greater understanding, awareness and connection to the human family of which we all belong.