Newcomers in the News, April 2019

  • Proposed Government Policy Changes Affecting Asylum-Seekers

The Canadian Council for Refugees recently spoke out against proposed changes to refugee policies that were buried in the recent budget implementation bill with a letter to the Prime Minister. The proposed changes would prevent asylum seekers who have already filed a refugee claim in one of five countries deemed “safe” (U.K., Australia, New Zealand and the U.S.), from accessing a full and independent refugee hearing in Canada.

These changes do not change the Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S. (discussed in previous blog posts), which prevents asylum-seekers from applying for refugee status if they crossed the border at an “official port of entry”. Because of the Safe Third Country Agreement about 40,000 asylum-seekers have crossed at “non-official” ports of entry since early 2017 (this is a so-called “loop-hole” that excludes them from the stipulations of the Agreement).

The proposed changes would apply to a small portion of the number of asylum-seekers from the U.S.

CBC News (April 10th, 2019) reports: “Since April 2017, only 3,150 people claiming asylum in Canada had applied previously for asylum in the U.S., according to statistics provided by the government.”

Therefore, these statistics indicate that the vast majority of people arriving from the U.S. to apply for refugee status in Canada, have not previously filed a refugee claim in the U.S. and therefore would not be directly affected by these recent policy changes. Nevertheless, everyone should have a fair hearing. As the Canadian Council for Refugees states“Significant changes to our refugee determination system impacting Canada’s international human rights obligations have no place buried in a budget bill.”

  • Increase in Unaccompanied Minors Arriving in Canada to Claim Refugee Status, & the Integral Role of Transitional Refugee Housing & Support

Matthew House Toronto is one of a few extremely valuable organizations that offer transitional housing to refugees who find themselves in limbo without a confirmed status, or in the process of beginning their new lives here. Anne Woolger, the founder of Matthew House, has noticed an increase in unaccompanied refugee minors arriving at their doorstep, and statistics confirm this trend.

According to a CBC article (Dec. 30, 2018), at Matthew House young refugee claimants “have guidance from what Woolger refers to as “house parents” — one or two volunteers who live in the home at any given time. “They’re not telling them what to do, but they’re being resources for them, kind of helping to steer them in wise directions.”

“Paul Zurbrigg is a longtime volunteer and fill-in ‘house parent’ at Matthew House. It’s something they might not otherwise get as asylum-seekers, says longtime volunteer and fill-in house parent Paul Zurbrigg. “Some night it might be sitting helping a kid with biology homework. Some night it might be talking over an issue that’s happening in somebody’s life. Some night it might be watching a movie together or playing PlayStation. It’s just hanging with these kids.” The retired teacher of 31 years knows connecting with the kids is key and has seen the difference Matthew House is making in their lives.”


After fleeing Afghanistan at the age of 17, “now 20, Sadiqi has graduated high school, secured a full-time job at a restaurant and has plans to go back to study technology in college. He’s also transitioned out of Matthew House into an apartment with roommates.” (CBC, Dec. 30, 2018)

Organizations like Mathew House and those who volunteer with them, are supporting the occupational re-engagement of some of society’s most vulnerable newcomers.

  • An Example of how Occupational Continuity can Facilitate an Easier Settlement Experience

Many of you may have heard of Peace by Chocolate, a huge newcomer (occupational) success story out of Nova Scotia. The Hadhads, (former) Syrian refugees, arrived in Antigonish in January 2016 and very quickly were able to launch a chocolate company in August 2016. Now, only three years later, Peace by Chocolate is distributing their products to major stores and wholesalers across Canada and employing up to 45 people during peak production periods. It grew much more quickly than even they anticipated.

Tareq Hadhad, family member and CEO of Peace by Chocolate, spoke to the CBC News (Feb. 19, 2019) about their plans to expand and to “give back and pay it forward”. The company is pledging to work with 50 refugees and mentor 10 Canadian startups run by refugees over the next few years.

“Tareq’s father, Assam Hadhad, was a chocolate maker in Damascus for two decades — employing 30 people in his factory. Before the country was ravaged by war and the factory was bombed, the company used to ship specialty treats across the Middle East.”  (CBC News, Feb. 19, 2019)

This is a great example of occupational continuity creating a bridge from one environment to another – sustained and meaningful engagement in a familiar and fulfilling occupation that maintains similar identity roles, despite the settlement disruption. This provides a lot of stability during a transition that can feel very destabilizing.

Of course, this type of occupational continuity is not always possible to this extent and at this scale. However, there are likely still many occupational patterns and rituals that can be supported in continuing on a smaller scale – even in more difficult circumstances.

  • In Contrast, Many Newcomers Experience more Significant Challenges with their Settlement Process

In an article published by The Star (February 8, 2019), Syrian newcomers (former refugees) in Calgary shared a more difficult experience adjusting to Canada while facing greater challenges:

“The Star talked to families that use child benefits to pay the rent, parents who can’t leave the house to learn English because they can’t afford child care, refugees who can’t get a job because of the language barrier, victims of torture triggered by the stress of settlement and, in almost every city, people struggling to navigate the bureaucracy to try to sponsor family members left behind in refugee camps.”

“Alsaleh knows it could be years, even decades, before she sees her family again. The future is bright for her children, but as a single mother who left school at the age of 12 and married at 18, family is all she knows. Calgary volunteer Sam Namourra, who has worked with Alsaleh for a year and a half, said she is one of his most difficult settlement cases. “So many times, she has asked me to go (back) to the camps.”

“The despair lodged in Alsaleh’s heart, the feeling of living in one place and belonging to another, is at the crux of integration. Canada can offer shelter and food and education and medical care, but some refugees will never be able to call this country home. “You still feel like you’re in a strange land,” Alsaleh said. “Like you’re in a country that isn’t yours.” (The Star, February 8th, 2019)

These quotes also speak to the common experience of “emotional ambivalence” among newcomers – the key theme found by Grounded Space’s ethnographic research in Toronto and Surrey, discussed earlier.

In another Star article (February 8th, 2019) a former Syrian refugee who has settled in Toronto, is haunted by the torture he experienced in prison during the war. Thankfully he is able to access counselling sessions and support at the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture.

“Once the initial euphoria of settlement dissipates, newcomers face new stressors like finding a place to live, learning a new language and finding a job. When they have time to reflect on their new reality, it can awaken the trauma they tried to bury.

“They arrive here with a sense of relief after fleeing war and conflicts. Then they try to acquire the skills and tools to adjust to a new life. This stage is task-focused,” explained Ben Kuo, a clinical psychology professor at the University of Windsor in Ontario. “After one or two years of settlement, the adults start to question the purpose of their new life.

Oftentimes post-traumatic stress symptoms can be triggered years later after the traumatic event. Nevertheless, effectively addressing the basic settlement and occupational needs of newcomers provides significant support to the healing process. People are better able to heal the impact of the past when they are safe and secure in their bodies and environments, in their present-daysituation.

“Because of their suffering during the war and conflicts, if their immediate settlement needs are not met, it makes them that much more vulnerable to mental health illnesses,” Ahmed said. “Their mental health improves, lapses and relapses. But most of them do overcome their mental health issues and are able to settle.”

“Some refugees, however, are reluctant to seek professional help, said Reham Abazid, a translator at the YMCA of Greater Saint John and a Syrian refugee who arrived in New Brunswick in 2016. It is uncommon to talk about emotions, so refugees don’t realize the value of therapy or counselling.”

These newcomers need to feel they are welcomed and belong. Social support and prevention work is key. We need public education to remove the stigma associated with mental health needs,” said Pietropaolo, who heads a 13-member clinical team. “We have to get them when they come to us for help, or they are gone forever.” (The Star, February 8th, 2019)

CBC News (December 8,2018) reported on the high rate of pseudoseizures among Yazidi refugees in Canada which are attributed to the severe psychological stress they experienced while captured by ISIS as sex slaves. Canada has welcomed about 1,400 former captives and survivors of ISIS.

“Support groups and doctors working with the Yazidi population here say they need mental health treatment in their first language and the ability to reunite with their families, who may be left behind in refugee camps.”

The manager of the community wellness program at Mount Carmel Clinic in Winnipeg wants to see Canada extend the definition of “family” especially in the Yazidi case to include a larger network of support, and to make it easier for family members to be reunited in Canada. Family support and family reunification is particularly vital for those who have experienced severe trauma.  (CBC News, December 8,2018) 

  • Occupational Therapy References in the News in a Newcomer Context

Every now and then I do a news search to pick up any new articles that mention OTs working in a newcomer context in Canada.

In a CBC article from December 16th, 2018, it was stated: “Now, occupational therapists are also working with immigrant and refugee children suffering from trauma.” There is no further elaboration on this point – the article is about occupational therapists working on primary care teams providing mental health treatment in general. However, it was still interesting to read this mention.

I also came across an older article in the Vancouver Sun, from June 22nd, 2016 that mentioned occupational therapy. It is particularly worth quoting an excerpt here in light of our recent discussion about IFHP (Interim Federal Health Program) during the network’s last annual general meeting in December 2018:

“The Al-Sidawi family of six arrived in Vancouver in January and moved into their apartment in May. They had a safe place to call home, but with their arrival in Canada came a new set of challenges.”

“The apartment they were placed in is not accessible, which means it is almost impossible for the women to get into the bathroom. Because there is a bathtub, it is hard for their mother and older sister to give them showers, so this only happens once every two or three weeks. On one occasion they went to the house of a friend with a mobility impairment in order to shower.”

“Abbotsford-based occupational therapist Jeff Mah, who works with about a dozen Syrian refugee clients, says modifications can be made to most homes to make them accessible.”

However, he has run into roadblocks with the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP), which funds refugee health care, which prevent him from getting equipment to clients as quickly as possibleMany refugee health centres are staffed by nurse practitioners, but the health program that funds the equipment requires a doctor to sign off, he explained.

This is problematic because many refugees — and established Canadians — don’t have a family doctor and rely on walk-in clinics.”

Other funders, such ICBC or WorkSafeBC, pre-approve clients in desperate situations, Mah said.

“It makes things a lot easier for everyone,” Mah said. “You have a certain budget to work with, you just order it right away and there’s no … delay in getting that client the equipment they need. It’s for clients with higher needs who are not mobile.”

“The IFHP also does not pay for translators, except for psychiatric or counselling appointments, he said, which has left him having to rely on Arabic-speaking volunteers.” (Vancouver Sun, June 22nd, 2016)

Check out the Canadian Council for Refugee’s webpage, ‘Refugee and immigration issues in Canadian media’, for a continually updated list of recent news headlines and articles, which provides an overview of the national public dialogue on relevant issues.


Questions for Reflection & Action:

  • How can OTs come alongside and contribute to organizations like Matthew House, which provide essential transitional housing and occupational supports to newcomers?
  • How can OTs partner with former refugees to amplify their efforts to “pay it forward” like the Hadhad family want to do with the success of their business?
  • How can OTs facilitate occupational continuity for newcomers during their settlement process – on both large and small scales, wherever possible?
  • What might it look like to be an OT supporting occupational continuity wherever possible, while also supporting newcomers with learning and acquiring the resources and skills to engage in new occupations?
  • How can OTs support newcomers with cultivating ‘occupations of belonging‘ in order to ease feelings of alienation and exclusion… while also making environments more welcoming to newcomers?
  • How could OTs be better equipped and resourced to navigate the challenges of the IFHP and advocate for equipment and changes to the program when necessary, on behalf of their newcomer clients?

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