A recent event at Pier 21 explored the immigrant experience from a woman’s perspective
By Chris Muise, Photos by Tammy Fancy
The immigrant experience in Halifax isn’t easy to sum up; everyone experiences it differently. Add other factors and identity (like womanhood, motherhood, religion, and culture), and no one can really know what to expect.
Passages Canada and the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 recently hosted a panel of four women who immigrated to Nova Scotia talking about their experiences. In Our Own Words: Immigrant Women in Atlantic Canada included María José Yax-Fraser, Nikki Jafari, Eunice Abaga, and moderator Dorota Glowacka.
Each of these women is an immigration success story. They’ve all made it to top positions in their professional careers and are leaders in their communities.
“Finding and keeping a job takes a lot of perseverance and patience, and open-mindedness to learn from others,” says Abaga. After moving to Nova Scotia from Kenya, it took her seven years to find a career in her field. “You have to be prepared to submit as many resumés as you cannot count,” she advises. “Keep sending and keep sending until you forget the last number.”
This can be hard for some newcomers. People may be surgeons, engineers, any other highly-trained specialist, and they expect to quickly find the same work in Canada. That misconception was poignantly shared in an audio recording of a woman recounting how she and her husband worried they’d find work before their social-insurance cards arrived.
Many employers want newcomers to have “Canadian” experience. To get that, some immigrants get creative.
“I went from department to department, knocking and introducing myself and saying, ‘I can do some research and statistical analysis: can you hire me?’” recalls Abaga.
One person who was taken aback, telling her she didn’t know who she was. “You will know me when you hire me,” she countered, and got a job. That eventually lead to her current position: policy analyst for Nova Scotia’s Department of Health and Wellness.
But there are other ways to get Canadian experience that employers will value.
“That’s the thing I couldn’t stress more… volunteering,” says Jafari, who helped create the International Business Trade Show. She recommends everyone try volunteering, but stresses that it’s especially important for newcomers; volunteering is a great way to integrate into their new community.
“It’s a great way for them to network, make connections, meet like-minded [people],” says Jafari, who came to Canada from Turkey when she was 10 years old. “I see many volunteer positions lead to permanent jobs, or stepping-stone jobs.”
“I also think it’s a sense of responsibility, right? To give, because you’ve been given so much,” adds Yax-Fraser. A network of support, either from the community, family, or institutions is key to immigrant success. But Yax-Fraser reminds people of the line between volunteerism and unpaid labour.
“Volunteering also is a double-edged sword,” says Yax-Fraser, who immigrated from Guatemala in 1989. “Sometimes I’m concerned about the government expecting the communities to carry the responsibility of creating spaces and creating services and programs that they should be responsible for. We are meeting a lot of the needs that the government should be meeting.”
Yax-Fraser calls on government to invest the economic value of motherhood. “My experiences working with newcomers and my experience as an immigrant mother, motivated me to go back to university and explore what it means to be an immigrant mother,” she says. “Society has not valued the work of mothers in an economic sense.”
Yax-Fraser says that the Harper government stripped away resources for immigrant mothers who also wanted careers. It meant that women were often the last to make use of integration services like English classes. (Language is a major barrier for job-seeking immigrants.)
Things are improving under the new Trudeau government, she adds, but women still don’t get an equal chance to have children and a career. “Imagine if women decided, okay, I’m not going to do my work—I’m not going to take care of my children,” says Yax-Fraser. “There would be no labour force… No workers and no taxpayers in the next generation. Our economy would crumble.”
“Invest in women,” she adds. “Rather than taking away all these services that will make the life of women better, put those services out. Open the way for women to not struggle so much.”
Panellists also talked about racism in Nova Scotia. “I really don’t think I want to name that bad word,” says Abaga. “Racism makes people shrink. If we can’t name it, we can’t deal with it.”
Abaga thinks that racism, in the form of hiring policies, is a matter of understanding. Employers can be taught how to accommodate immigrant workers in a similar way they accommodate people with disabilities: it’s just a matter of recognizing the barriers. “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change,” she says.
Yax-Fraser, who came from a country torn apart by civil war, says she was slow to notice the racism in Nova Scotia; it’s subtle compared to what she saw before leaving conflict-torn Guatemala.
Jafari says a lot of Nova Scotian racism comes from misunderstandings. She feels that the racism is a sensitive subject in immigrant communities, which makes it hard to discuss and confront.
“I do acknowledge and believe that there is some racism, but I do believe it’s being overused sometimes,” says Jafari. “I’ve seen employers have valid feedback to give to their staff, and they’re terrified to seem that they’re racist, and they don’t know how to say it, or what to say.”
The discussion lasted two captivating hours, but even that much time, they admitted, wasn’t enough to illuminate all the trials and tribulations women immigrants face when coming to live in Nova Scotia. But they certainly made the picture a little brighter.