Newcomers who arrived in Calgary during pandemic forced to put dreams on hold

It’s not the dream start to a new life in Canada that Khalil Jomaa imagined as he headed to Canada from Syria seven months ago.

Jomaa, who was a teacher in Aleppo, and his family lost their home to the war there. 

  • Watch the video at the top of the story to hear more as the family describes what it was like to land in their new country just as the pandemic forced everyone into lockdown

They came to Calgary via Turkey in February, ready to embrace Canadian life. But COVID-19 had other ideas.

Just as they arrived, COVID-19 cases started to rise and Calgary went into a lockdown of sorts with rules and restrictions changing everything. It was especially confusing for new arrivals like Jomaa in the early days of navigating the city and the systems in place to help newcomers.

“As a newcomer, you need to go very fast and progress into society, but we can’t,” said Jomaa.

“All the time, we must stay at home,” he said.

“We cannot visit our neighbours, we can’t go. It’s COVID, what can we do?” Jomaa said.

Khalil Jomaa was a university professor in Syria. He hoped for a speedy immersion into Canadian life and work but the pandemic has slowed his progress significantly. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

COVID shutdown was ‘a big shock’

Everything got harder when COVID arrived, from making friends to accessing in-person settlement services. 

Jomaa, his wife and his older children are all learning English online, but he says it’s difficult learning remotely, without the interactions of fellow students and instructors.

Jomaa is doing courses with Columbia College and his son is enrolled at Bow Valley College.

Like colleges and universities, settlement organizations including Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, Immigrant Services Calgary and the Centre for Newcomers have moved their workshops and programs online.

Jomaa says government services have also been impacted. He’s been trying to sponsor his remaining daughter to come to Calgary from Syria but he says the process has slowed down significantly during the pandemic.

Even Jomaa’s medical appointments have moved online.

Jomaa’s wife, Yazi Alhandhal, doesn’t speak English yet, but shared her thoughts on arriving during the pandemic through an interpreter.

Yazi Alhandhal says arriving in Calgary as COVID cases started to rise was a shock and put her family’s dreams of a new life on hold. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

“We were so excited to go out and explore Canada and enjoy it and we were shocked that as soon as we arrived, COVID hit and we couldn’t go out or go anywhere. It was a big shock,” she said.

Their son, Nazar, has his sights set on a career in the fashion industry. He wants to start his own business when the pandemic is over.

“Right now, I go to college just one day per week.… Online courses are good but not better than face to face at the college,” he said.

“We have conversations with people, the students, the teachers, not just stay home,” Nazar said.

“I have more things to do. I would like to start courses in fashion design and I hope to open a company making clothes,” he said.

Pandemic forces newcomer centre to get creative

But for many newcomers like Nazar, their dreams are on hold. 

Agencies that work with newcomers say that, right now, the problems and issues facing them keep stacking up.

“We’re having to get innovative with the services we provide,” said Anila Lee Yuen, CEO of the Centre for Newcomers.

“We’re open but we try to do everything online and that can create problems,” she said.

Some families don’t have computers or devices. Sometimes they just rely on a phone.

Lee Yuen also says health monitoring like temperature checks and long lists of questions can be frightening for people who’ve come from hostile countries and environments. 

Getting kids into schools and integrated is also problematic during the pandemic as well as accessing avenues of financial assistance.

Anila Lee Yuen, CEO of the Centre for Newcomers, says things are much harder for newcomers this year with the pandemic forcing restrictions that can make life more complicated and distant for new families. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

“We got issues with employment, there’s less jobs available. That gets more difficult because your ability to get assistance right now is diminished, your ability to go out and look for a job is also diminished, also your ability to get into society, getting to know people and socialize is also diminished,” she said.

“It creates a layering of effects, which is creating a lot of vulnerabilities for our clients,” said Lee Yuen.

Agency sees ‘more blatant racism’ amid COVID

With gathering restrictions in place, it’s even difficult to get to faith-based events and take part in group meetings, limiting who people get to know in the city and leading to mental health strains and isolation.

“When you’re only looking at your own family for eight months, you can get a little stir crazy,” said Lee Yuen.

“Inviting people for coffee, going to someone’s house for dinner, having play dates for children, [not being able to do] all of that is an impediment to newcomers’ integration,” she added.

Another issue for some newcomers unique to COVID has been an increase in racism related to the virus and its origins. It’s another issue some newcomers have to face on top of everything else.

“That’s been something new that we’ve had to incorporate into our training when we’re meeting with newcomers, just saying there is a bit of a heightened, more blatant racism we’re seeing in light of COVID,” said Lee Yuen.

She says the needs keep rising among newcomers. This year, her organization saw 5,000 more clients than last year and newcomers are still arriving, all needing some forms of assistance to help them settle.

‘I’m excited to go to school, meet people, integrate’

Early on in the pandemic, the needs were more urgent for things like food hampers. Now, Lee Yuen says the focus is on employment and supports for issues like domestic violence and mental health, which are also issues in the wider population.

“I hope when COVID is gone everything, gets back to normal,” said Yazi.

“I’m excited to go to school, meet people, integrate into Canadian society and explore Canada and Calgary. I want to visit my neighbours and invite my neighbours into our house. Then we can fit into society faster,” she said.

Her husband, Khalil, says his hopes and dreams are still alive, just on hold.

“We’re dreaming of a good future. We’d like to be Canadian, to get citizenship, to work in society, to be like Canadians,” he said.

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