Digital divide amid COVID-19 leaves Canada’s newest arrivals feeling isolated, immigrant group says

As she turns on and logs in to her donated computer, 24-year-old Shewit Berhane is beaming from cheek to cheek, giddy with excitement. After six months in B.C., she’s finally able to really feel like she can connect to her new home.

In a world heavily dependent on technology, especially in the midst of a pandemic, immigrant settlement centres, like Vancouver’s MOSAIC, say a lack of digital devices for Canada’s newest arrivals, like Berhane, is leaving them feeling abandoned and isolated.

Berhane arrived in Vancouver by way of Eritrea and Ethiopia April 21, right as the pandemic lockdowns and dependency on the virtual world ramped up — a need she said she couldn’t meet, as the lack of affordable devices turned in to a vicious cycle of wanting to integrate but not having the right tools.

“You need some ideas. You need to collect some ideas of the society, of the way of the living of the new society.
There is a lot of life education online on Google. You know, all my wants were blocked. It was very hard to me,” Berhane said.

She said coming to a new country in the middle of a pandemic with no job or money to buy a computer and no knowledge of how the society works is a recipe for disaster. But, for her, it was still the better option, as she searched for a better life for her family and her 17-month-old daughter in Canada.

Shewit Berhane came from Ethiopia in April and says it’s difficult to integrate in a new country without technology at your fingertips. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Berhane is one of the 18,000 clients not-for-profit society MOSAIC works with every year to help newcomers integrate into Canadian society and culture.

MOSAIC CEO Olga Stachova said the pandemic has put a spotlight on the digital divide for many vulnerable communities, in particular recent immigrants and refugees. She said with the uptick in digital meetings and interviews and online learning, it’s clear a lot of what we do has moved to the virtual world.

“The way we access services, the way we access programing, learning, the way we interact with each other has moved online.”

Stachova said she’s “seen increased levels of anxiety and stress and the sense of isolation in newcomers.”

MOSAIC looking for donations of old computers

Stachova said moving to a new country and starting a new life is challenging at the best of times. She said centres like hers are desperately putting a call out to the public to search their homes and consider recycling their old devices to places like MOSAIC.

She’s also asking for companies looking to help with the impacts of COVID-19 to consider providing funds to help bridge the gap.

Stachova said right now, there are at least 1,000 newcomer households feeling disconnected from the outside world and in need of a computer, iPad, laptop, or cellphone to have and use inside of their homes.

“That device is not used by one person in that family. It’s actually used by all the members of the families. Some of them doing their language courses, some of them doing their homework, some of them applying for subsidies, some of them looking for employment. So, those devices will go a long way,” Stachova said.

Shewit Berhane says before receiving a donated computer, she and her family felt trapped inside their home. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Berhane agrees. 

The biology major from Eritria said after receiving a computer earlier this month, she was able to attend virtual language classes, resume writing workshops and is now able to type out and send a resume and apply for jobs.

“Computer is everything. Even if you don’t have a friend, I can get a lot of ideas and a lot of information is from the computer,” Berhane said.

Stachova said right now there is an immediate need for hundreds of devices, but in the long run she wants to see the province consider creating affordable internet plans for vulnerable populations, like newcomers.

Berhane said while a computer may seem like a common tool for most, for her and immigrants like herself, it’s a tether to the outside world, a lifeline.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


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