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  • Yusra Qadir

Commemorating World Refugee Day 2024

Updated: Jun 25

By: Yusra Qadir, Vice President, Programs and Advocacy



Context

June 20th commemorates World Refugee Day. This day celebrates the strength and courage of people who have been forced to flee their home country to escape conflict or persecution. The theme for 2024 is “Solidarity with Refugees”.  This means being inclusive, opening hearts, minds, and doors for refugees, and reflecting on their unique contexts, needs and challenges. Solidarity also means finding sustainable solutions to conflict to support refugees’ safe returns to their homes. 


In all my meetings and interactions with refugees, formal or informal, the wish to return to their homeland and to live with their people in peace and harmony has always been a constant. It is not really a choice when the options are loosing life and safety of themselves and their family versus leaving their homes, lands, and people. 


Yet according to UNHCR at the end of 2023, 117.3 million people had to make that choice as they were forcibly displaced due to persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations. This includes over 40 million children. Children are over-represented among the world’s refugees as they make up approx. 30% of the global population, but represent more than 41% of the world’s refugees. Most refugees (75%) are hosted by low and middle-income countries, mostly neighbouring countries (69%), but the resettlement assistance programs help refugees settle into developed countries too. 


Canada’s Refugee Resettlement Program and what it means for the country

Canada has a strong tradition of welcoming refugees and has recently celebrated welcoming over one million refugees since 1980. In 2023, Canada received 51,100 resettled refugees. There are often assumptions about refugees being continuously reliant on social welfare and therefore their arrivals are considered ‘extra cost’ for taxpayers. Based on empirical data from UNHCR Canada and accounts from refugee families that the Mothers Matter Canada partners have supported, this assumption could not be any further from the facts. 

  • Refugees have an almost similar unemployment rate (9%) as Canadian-borns (6%)

  • Refugees prosper and join Canada’s middle class within five years of their arrival. Data from the 2014 tax year show that a significant proportion of refugees who have been in Canada for at least five years earn middle-class incomes. Nearly one in four refugees (23%) earned between $40,000 and $79,999 annually, similar to the percentage of Canadians (27%) and total immigrants (24%) earning a middle-class income.

  • While refugees receive assistance immediately after arrival, Canada’s investment in refugees pays off. Over time, refugees pay more in income tax on average than they receive in public benefits and services. Refugees increasingly narrow the gap between income tax paid and public benefits and services received the longer they live in Canadian provinces and territories. 

  • 14.4% of refugees who have been in Canada between 10 and 30 years are entrepreneurs, compared to 12.3% of people born in Canada. Refugees use their diverse skillsets and talents to start businesses and create jobs for themselves and other Canadians. 

  • Once integrated, refugees feel a strong sense of belonging and gratitude towards Canada for welcoming them and their families and helping them lead a safe life. 


Holistic Approach to Resettlement and a focus on staff well-being

As Canada welcomes more refugees, it is important to ensure a whole of society approach to resettlement and integration. There needs to be coordination between various stakeholders; federal and provincial governments, service delivery organizations and neighborhood/community groups


Jennifer York (Director, Refugee Services at Immigrant Services Society of BC) shared that “Housing and health are big issues for refugees as the system is already overwhelmed and a big part of working with clients is to help them navigate the systems, manage expectations, and build their capacity to be able to navigate systems themselves. We rely on the lived experience of staff, and while resettling refugees is sometimes chaotic, it is deeply rewarding work as, at the end of the day, it is people trying to help other people.”   


Work with refugees who are high-need clients is hard, ensuring staff well-being and establishing professional boundaries, are critical to avoid burnout. Jennifer shared that “we invest in wellness sessions for staff and have put mechanisms in place to debrief, intentionally pause, reflect, and unwind, and provided targeted support for staff so they are comfortable with having difficult conversations or dealing with compassion fatigue.” 


From a refugee service delivery perspective, a focus on front-line and management staff well-being is imperative if the service is to retain its quality and voltage. Mothers Matter has also emphasized having clear values that factor in diversity, equity, and inclusion but also provide psychological safety for staff to feel comfortable and safe discussing things that they find challenging. 


Celebrating Refugees’ Resilience, Strength and Positivity

Despite the hardships imposed on refugee clients by life and their high needs that require attention in the early stages of resettlement, the resilience, strength, and positivity that we see in refugee women participating in our programs is always inspiring. 


Shakila

Shakila is a remarkable young woman who arrived as an Afghan refugee in Canada. Her hard work and commitment to supporting her family and contributing to Canadian society shine in her accomplishments over just a few years. She has worked three jobs to support herself and her family. Shakila works with Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Society (CVIMS) as a HIPPY home visitor at a shelter and the fish market.  At 23 years of age, she is contagiously inspiring and deeply values self-reliance and independence. Above all, she does not want to burden the country that welcomed her family to live safely. She wants to undertake meaningful work that can help uplift vulnerable communities in Canada. "I am young. I can learn quickly and work hard. My siblings can do the same. We want to be independent and help others while we help ourselves. I really like my life in Canada. Yes, there are challenges, but they are part of life. I don't like to think negatively, I always focus on the bright side."


Swedini Halliday, the HIPPY Coordinator at CVIMS, whom Shakila sees as her mentor, says, "Shakila is a force of life. When we interviewed her, we asked if you have experience doing such work. She said no, but I work hard and learn quickly. We asked if you have a car and driving license because you would need that to do home visits; she said no, but if you give me this job, I would get a car and a license. We asked, what if you could not get the license, she said, I will get a bike and use that to get the work done, rain or shine. What do you do with someone with such will and ambition? We gave her the job, she got the car and the license, and the rest is history. This girl will be going places, and we will happily support her towards her goals!"


Khadija

Khadija arrived in Canada in 2018, seeking a better chance at life for her children and family. She found her way to community and friendships in Canada through programs for her children. She enjoys spending time with her children and awaits her youngest to start school so she can actively contribute to Canadian society and economy. She misses Pakistan (her country of origin) as she has not been able to visit her family even once since she arrived, but she thinks life is a challenge we need to crack – so she gets cracking every day in hopes of a better future for her children. She is in awe of the services DIVERSEcity has offered her and her family while navigating resettlement in Canada.


“I came to Canada 7 months pregnant, with two children aged 7 and 2, seeking asylum. We were on social assistance for 2 to 3 months, and we wanted to be on our feet as soon as possible. My husband started off as a mobile technician and now drives Uber. This also meant I was all alone at home with children in a system that was completely new to me. I was lonely and isolated. It is hard to make friends or talk to others. If I told anyone that we are refugees, people would treat us differently, I could see it on their face. People think less of refugees. They think refugees are taking their jobs and living off their taxes – my landlord reminded us of this every chance he got. Such experiences added to the isolation. I found my way into community and friendships through programs for my children. They were my window to the outside world, and I owe First Steps and HIPPY my confidence and community building. No matter how low I felt, my motivation was to provide the best chance at life to my children. I wanted them to seize every opportunity they can get to learn. I want my children to learn things that I could not learn. And that is why I went out, even when lonely, rain or shine – took the buses, took the trains, walked with three kids…. But I made it, and that motivation shaped my resettlement journey for the better.”


Tsega

Tsega is a mother of 4 kids aged 11, 10, 8 and 5. She left her country Eritrea in 2007 and was displaced for 16 years until she arrived in Canada in 2023. She journeyed through four countries (Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, and Israel), a very daunting and unsafe trail, on which she lost friends to rivers, deserts, and conflict. And while she thinks of the friends she lost every day, she is grateful that she is here in Canada with her family and can rebuild her life. 


“Starting again is very hard but I have done it so many times. I have been in Canada for one year. When I arrived, I was really lonely. When I opened my door, nobody said hi…some people just said hi and then disappeared. My kids were so isolated and they asked me why did we come to Canada…. We have no friends here. I started taking them to the park….  It was very hard for my kids…. Even the church was hard to adjust to. I told my children what I told myself, keep an open heart, keep an open mind, try to learn the language, and try to make friends and enjoy. Finding work for my husband was very hard. The rents are very high. But we manage. The New West Family Place really helped me. I had so many questions, how to live, where to start, who to connect with, how to get a library card, how to get help for kids. I found my home visitor Yodit at the New West Family Place, and that changed things for me. She helped me with so many things, I learnt to take the bus. The scariest thing for me was to take the train. I had taken trains before, but someone told me the sky train had no drivers. It just scared me so, so much. But I know how it works, and I can take any bus, any train and get anywhere I want.


My husband has university education but he is working in construction. I don’t feel good about this and I hope he gets a job that matched his skills. I want to continue my education and work to support my family, my community, and this country. I was an elementary teacher in Eritrea, and I taught early years in Israel. I want to work in a daycare or preschool as I love working with children. 


Now that I have found community. I think about what refugees need when they arrive. People come here after seeing so much hardship, and the biggest change here is isolation. They just need kindness, a smile, a wave of hand, help with directions sometimes, someone to show the way. My experience motivates me to give back to others who are new here. I want to make a difference, and I want to count for some change, no matter how small.”


Where to?

Celebrating a world where refugees feel welcome means being inclusive, having an open heart, having an open mind, and having a plan to ensure that unique refugee needs can be met. This means consistent and flexible funding, adaptable programming, and robust evaluation. It means involving refugees across program cycles and not just listening to them—but truly hearing them—and then pivoting based on what is heard to devise what could truly work. 


This also means recommitting to finding solutions to peace and tolerance so refugees can either return home or find new homes where they can live to their fullest potential. 

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