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Immigration declined during the pandemic but some still took the leap; here’s one family’s experience

March 17, 2021

On the day Azadeh Farshadpour and her family arrived at the airport to fly 10,000 kilometres to their new home, nobody came along to wave goodbye.

By the time she left Iran for Saskatoon, Farshadpour hadn’t seen her brother and sister in over a year. As she waited for the plane to take off, all she could think about was the family she was leaving behind.

Farshadpour, her husband, Abolfazl Aminaie, and their two children immigrated to Canada in July 2020.

Not being able to say goodbye to her loved ones at the airport, and not knowing when she would see them again, was one of the hardest aspects for the 38-year-old of leaving her home country.

“It’s something in my heart … when I’m thinking about it, it’s always bothering me,” she said.

COVID-19 travel restrictions, flight cancellations, and the heartbreak of the departure itself would be only the beginning of the hardships of migrating during a pandemic.

According to the Saskatchewan Bureau of Statistics, net international migration only added 704 people to the province in the third quarter of 2020 compared to 5,911 during the same period in 2019.

For those who did arrive, the already challenging aspects of immigration, like securing housing, finding a job, integrating at school, making community connections and other essential settlement steps, became that much harder.

Coming to Saskatchewan

Farshadpour and her husband decided to leave everything behind to start a new life in Canada mostly for their children’s sake.

After waiting three years to receive their visas, the family didn’t want to delay their departure for an indefinite time as a result of the pandemic.

“It wasn’t clear how long the coronavirus pandemic would take,” said Farshadpour.

“We decided to move to Canada and take a risk during the pandemic.”

For the first two weeks in Canada, all the family knew about Saskatoon was the airport and a basement suite they spent their quarantine in.

Finding a rental place prior to leaving their home country was difficult. Due to the high COVID-19 numbers in Iran, people in Saskatoon were hesitant to rent a place to the family. But they were finally able to find a “very nice landlord,” said Farshadpour.

Members of the Iranian community in Saskatoon helped the family during their quarantine, like by dropping off food.

“Without them we could do nothing,” said Farshadpour.

“We were so lucky to find them before coming to Canada.”

‘It took time’

The family enjoyed their freedom after quarantine, but the pandemic continued to complicate their settlement process.

Instead of a quick trip to Service Canada, applying and receiving their social insurance numbers (SINs) took two weeks. SINs are essential for all Canadian residents in order to work.

“Everywhere that we wanted to go we had to call them before, we had to book an appointment,” Farshadpour said.

“It took time.”

Transitioning to a new life during a global pandemic was not only a challenge for the adults. Their nine-year-old son, Kiarash, initially struggled in school, missing his friends and family back in Iran.

“For him it was more difficult than us,” said Farshadpour. “He didn’t know English very well. … When he came back [from school], he was crying.”

Kiarash kept asking his mother why they brought him here.

“It was difficult for me also as a mum to make him calm and explain to him the situation.”

COVID-19 as a leveller

Despite the slogan ‘we are all in this together’, newcomers and visible minorities are more likely to report encounters of attacks, harassment and stigma during the pandemic, according to Statistics Canada.

They’re also disproportionately represented in higher risk jobs, such as front-line healthcare work, and the food and accommodation industries, according to Statistics Canada.

Regardless of the data, Michael Afenfia believes the pandemic has worked as a leveller for immigrants and non-immigrants.

“It was something we all had to deal with,” said Afenfia, who came to Canada from Nigeria in August 2019 and also lives in Saskatoon.

“Maybe it was particularly hard for the newcomers because you’re new to this place — you don’t exactly have family and friends and all that — but we all felt the isolation.

“I kind of saw all of us going through that whole process of isolation, all of us going through that whole process of being locked away and not being able to connect in the ways that we knew.”

While an ocean separates Afenfia from his family, like many immigrants, other Saskatchewan residents now found themselves barred from seeing relatives in their own city.

Another shared experience is the anxiety of finding or maintaining work during the pandemic.

From February to April 2020, the COVID-19 shutdown affected 5.5 million workers in Canada and three million jobs were lost, according to Statistics Canada. By August 2020, employment was still 5.3 per cent below the national pre-pandemic level.

Afenfia considers himself fortunate to have found work at the Saskatoon Open Door Society just before the coronavirus outbreak in Saskatchewan.

“I keep thinking even now what would have happened if I hadn’t secured the position before the lockdown,” he said.

“It’s something that is really terrifying.”

Afenfia knows a lot of newcomers whose settlement process has been affected because of the challenge of finding work.

“You want to work immediately because the funds or the resources you’ve come with, it keeps depleting,” said Afenfia.