WINNIPEG, Canada — Every new immigrant to Canada has to live through the three stages of acculturation, which for most people is not easy. First comes the thrill and joy of exploring a new land, then feelings of marginalization and hostility toward the host country and, finally, acceptance.
The numbers of non-European immigrant women have been steadily rising in Canada, and some say that they are experiencing significant cultural problems in adjusting.
It has been more than four years since Manpreet (the names of the immigrants in this article have been changed for privacy reasons) has been living in Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba, but she has yet to feel completely at home. Ever since she arrived as a new bride in an Indian family that has been living in the country for three decades, Manpreet, 28, has been trying to work through her anxieties and ensuing health problems.
Her courtship had been primarily conducted by phone from India for four months, so she had no way of preparing for the turbulent emotional times ahead. “I used to have second thoughts about marrying an Indian-Canadian, but I decided to look at the bright side at the time,” she said. “My in-laws are very ‘Indian’ in their way of living and are quite supportive, but it has taken me quite a while to adjust to my husband’s ways. He is an all-out Canadian, emotionally and culturally.”
What has made things harder for Manpreet is having to put her career on hold. A dentist by profession, she has been trying to pass exams to allow her to practice in Canada. “The stress of settling in a strange foreign land hasn’t been easy to bear,” she said.
Ivy may have managed to put her hardscrabble life in war-torn Sierra Leone behind her to settle down in Winnipeg to try to build a better future for her family and herself, but like most refugees she, too, has found the process of integration agonizing.
“The culture shock, language barrier and lack of qualification to do paid work can be immensely challenging hurdles to overcome,” she said. “For refugees and new immigrants, it instantly results in a low self-esteem.” Alienation brought on by their accents and foreign customs and lifestyles worsen the situation.
While Manpreet and Ivy are trying hard to fit in and battle emotional issues, Cindy, who hails from the Philippines, is trying to accept her low social status. Once a respected teacher, she is working two menial jobs now to earn enough money to pay the bills for her family of four and also save cash to send back home to her parents. Each morning, she diligently makes her way to a McDonald’s restaurant while her evenings are spent working at the service counter of a superstore nearby. Although Cindy hardly ever rests, she wouldn’t mind the grind as much if people were less hurtful in their behavior and a little more considerate.
“There are times when customers direct racist jibes because of my accent,” she said. Despite being a qualified educator, Cindy says it is a long way before she can practice that profession here. Meanwhile, her husband, who used to be a bank officer in the Philippines, works in a factory. “We have to start in roles we are overqualified for because we have bills to pay and a family to support,” Cindy said.
Many women also find the sudden push toward complete independence tricky to handle. In Eastern cultures, particularly, prevalent social customs often create a habitual dependence on male family members to take care of chores outside the home. This custom is missing in the West.
So when Charu moved from India to Canada after marrying, she was shocked when she had to run her home without familial or spousal support. She did not pass her driving test, for example, which not only grounded her but also hit her self-esteem. Other disappointments further shattered her confidence. Unable to adapt to her circumstances and with her relationship in doldrums, Charu went back to India.
Newly arrived immigrant women are among the most vulnerable to having emotional and mental health issues. A majority of them face extreme stress because of sudden economic dependence, negative attitudes of local people and personal isolation.
Fortunately, several associations and nonprofit groups are working to enable immigrants to cope with the overwhelming changes they encounter in their new homeland. In Winnipeg, the Immigrant Women’s Association of Manitoba, a community-based organization, provides immigrant and refugee women with “support, knowledge and opportunity” to ease their assimilation into Canadian society. One popular program is “healing trauma through dance,” which uses energetic beats to drive away emotional distress. The association also offers therapeutic counseling and English classes.
For those in dire need of therapy that is “culturally sensitive and free of charge,” the University of Winnipeg’s Aurora Family Therapy Center provides a safe haven. It focuses on war-related trauma, parenting and relationship conflict, with assistance available in such languages as Swahili, Kirundi, Lingala, Farsi, Arabic, Punjabi and Korean.
Recognizing that people looking for a fresh start in a foreign land endure tremendous pressure, most rehabilitation programs offer wellness activities that enable newcomers to connect with those who have had similar experiences and struggles. Groups that work with women especially take into account issues like single parenting, abuse, pregnancy, crisis support, equity and employment. Other settlement services look at simplifying the process of housing, banking and transportation, besides rendering a better understanding of local laws.
Ivy said that the Immigrant Women’s Association’s “healing trauma through dance” program has helped her maintain her sanity. “Dancing is a way of reconnecting with your inner self; more so, connecting with others with similar experiences,” she said. The association has also proved to be a good place to practice conversational English and learn basics of Canadian life. “It’s a place where I go when I feel like crying.”
Cindy has benefited from a life-skills program she attended at a settlement agency in Winnipeg. “I like the fact that these services for new immigrants are free,” she said. “The Manitoba government funds agencies to help immigrants find work. They teach us job-search skills, and there is scope for enrolling in training. Some programs also introduce participants to potential employers.”
Statistics Canada reports that the number of non-European women immigrating to the country has been rising steadily. In 1981, it was 69 percent of female immigrants; by 2006, it reached 84 percent. For women like Manpreet, Ivy and Cindy, starting a new life from scratch has been fraught with problems. But with the right kind of support, this painful process becomes bearable as time goes by.
(© Women’s Feature Service)