COVID-19 slowing the resettlement process for newly-arrived refugees

Refugee resettlement has been suspended worldwide, but two Syrian families arrived in Peterborough just before the borders closed.

Toward the end of February, a Syrian family of six arrived in Peterborough — the latest government-assisted refugees to be resettled in the city. A few weeks later, another Syrian family, this one with four people, arrived. 

These were the last refugees to arrive in Peterborough before the coronavirus was declared a pandemic – when Canada shut its border to most non-citizens and the United Nations, responding to global travel restrictions such as Canada’s, temporarily suspended its refugee resettlement program. 

In one sense, they’re lucky to have made it to Peterborough when they did. Andy Cragg, the executive director of the New Canadians Centre, says he isn’t sure when refugee resettlement will resume. In the meantime, the NCC will not be receiving any more refugees. And with resettlement ground to a halt worldwide, more refugees will find themselves waiting in displaced persons camps and other temporary settlements

On the other hand, these two families have arrived in a city slowed down nearly to a standstill, and that means their settlement process has been slowed down as well. 

Jack Gillan, who was the refugee resettlement coordinator at the NCC until his retirement last week, says one of the biggest challenges for the families has been finding housing amid the pandemic. Physical distancing has made it difficult to view potential apartments and COVID-19 concerns are discouraging people from moving. 

“By now they should have at least signed a lease for a permanent home,” Gillan says, “and we’re not having a whole lot of luck at them finding a place to live.” 

The NCC provides temporary housing to newly-arrived refugees, and with no new families set to arrive right now, the two families can stay there for the time being. 

Still, Gillan says the families have been a bit discouraged by the lack of permanent housing available, and he points out that without a permanent address, the children (both families have elementary-aged kids) can’t be enrolled in school: “These children are not receiving educational services at this point in time from the board of education.”

Gillan says the NCC team checks in with the families every day to make sure they’re doing okay, but that the in-person supports they would usually offer have been reduced. “Our face-to-face contact is limited to once a week, [when we] drop off any provisions that they might need including the food cards,” Gillan says. (The NCC provides recently-arrived refugees with payment cards that can be used at a local grocery store.)

The pandemic is also preventing the NCC from delivering the social supports it usually would for newcomers.

“Normally newcomers are connected to a support group, a group of volunteers who help them discover their new community,” Gillan says. “Volunteers by now would have had them at their own home or had them check out the zoo” or done some other activity, he says. “These folks just haven’t been able to do anything with the volunteers.”

Despite these challenges, Cragg says “we’ve been doing all we can to support especially the more vulnerable folks that we know about,” including not only the two most recently-arrived families, but also other newcomers who arrived earlier than them. Cragg points out that refugees arriving in Canada often have a strong spirit. “There’s quite a lot of resiliency there,” he says.

Newcomer programming moves online

Refugee resettlement is considered an essential service, so the NCC is continuing to offer those services in-person where appropriate, Cragg tells me. All of the Centre’s other programming has been moved online, where possible.

Most of the New Canadian Centre’s programs have moved online, including this meeting of their Women’s Group, which is now connecting on Zoom. (Photo: Courtesy of the NCC’s Instagram.)

Lubna Sadek is the NCC’s youth group facilitator. She runs a weekly after-school drop-in that usually attracts about 40 people, mostly highschool students, and mostly youth who arrived in Peterborough from Syria. It’s a chance for youth to socialize and access resources, she says.

With the in-person sessions cancelled, Sadek has been experimenting with ways to keep checking in and being available by moving the sessions onto Instagram Live. “It’s a platform that I know is reliable and that I know the youth check frequently,” she says.

But Sadek misses her in-person interactions with the youth. “My work has been highly limited, because it’s normally face-to-face,” she says. It’s been a challenge to engage with the youth in the same way she did before. “I was able to get a lot out of the youth by simply going to them during recess time at school and having a chat with them about what they needed, casually … that interaction is now zero.”

As many youth and newcomers adjust to an abnormal rhythm, Sadek wants to remain available in whatever way she can. “For now it’s just about keeping the lines of communication open.”

This article was adapted from a Peterborough Currents email newsletter sent to our subscribers on April 30, 2020. It was lightly edited to fit the new context. To read the original newsletter, click here.


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