Challenges Faced by Female Refugees in Canada

By Frances Cumberland & Tracy Chow, JUMP Etobicoke

We work as Settlement and Employment Counsellors at the YWCA Toronto JUMP settlement support program in Etobicoke. Every day we work with newcomer women from all over the world who are permanent residents, convention refugees and live-in caregivers with work permits. Every woman who walks through our doors has her own story. Some women want to share the story of their journey to Canada in a group setting or in a one-on-one meeting. Others would rather not remember what they have witnessed or experienced. No matter their preference, YWCA Toronto offers them the support and guidance they need to thrive in Canada. We also advocate for government action to assist refugees – from increasing refugee resettlement targets to investments in women-only settlement programs.

Settlement Challenges for Women Refugees

All Canadians should be aware of the plight of millions of refugees worldwide who are forced to flee their homelands under threat of violence, persecution or conflict. Now more than ever, it is critical that we support refugee resettlement, and build welcoming communities.

Infographic: How You Can Help Newcomers & Refugees. Click to enlarge.

Statistics Canada research shows that 49% of refugees welcomed to Canada are women and girls. Some female refugees have experienced gender-based violence in various forms prior to their arrival in Canada including rape, forced impregnation, sexual slavery, trafficking and forced prostitution, witnessing acts of violence, and being forced to leave their homes.

Refugee women who have experienced sexual violence prior to their settlement in Canada may find that the trauma follows them into their resettlement. The most important qualities that we bring to each meeting and workshop are patience and compassion. We complete a thoughtful and personalized assessment for every woman who walks through our door, and support them on an ongoing basis to build trust and ensure that we meet their needs.

According to a World Health Organization (WHO) estimate, “more than 50% of the world’s refugees experience mental health problems.” It is important for those who work in settlement to be familiar with the antecedents and symptoms of mental illness, and other resources available for refugees. Settlement counsellors can play a vital role in connecting clients to a variety of specialized community resources to help them heal and move forward in Canada.

“Do you have any Canadian experience?”

Our clients face a number of systemic barriers and challenges when they try to secure employment in Canada. One of the most common questions our clients face as they navigate the job market is regarding their lack of “Canadian experience.” It is a chicken-or-egg problem: our clients are confused by the fact that an existing history of Canadian experience seems to be necessary to obtain Canadian experience in the first place. Despite this frustration, we are happy to say that we can offer guidance and support to assist our clients in getting their first “Canadian experience.” Potential barriers to employment may include:

  • Low proficiency in English
  • Lack of available and/or affordable child care
  • Difficulty in obtaining Canadian accreditation for their skills and education
  • Lack of knowledge about Canadian workplace culture
  • Concerns regarding the academic equivalency to Canadian educational standards
  • Limited work history (due to war or political turmoil in their former countries)
  • Lack of work experience outside the home as they have been busy caring for children and/or other family members
  • Loss of social networks

These barriers, along with other challenges, are addressed in one-on-one meetings and in group training, workshops and activities. The work of a settlement and employment counsellor goes far beyond offering information, providing referrals and filling out forms. We provide workshops in:

  • Canadian Workplace Culture
  • Customer Service  & Cashier Training
  • Food Handling Certificate Training
  • Career Planning
  • Interview Skills
  • Job Search Strategies

We also coordinated a variety of group activities to help our participants make new friends, explore hobbies, and get to know their new home, including:

  • Yoga
  • Zumba
  • Painting
  • Jewelry-making
  • Field trips to Toronto attractions
  • Peer-led workshops on self-care
  • Writing and storytelling workshop

These workshops and activities offer opportunities for women to build self-confidence, a sense of community, and thriving social networks. One of the JUMP participants recently told us that she “appreciated the guidance and support” she received for her career path, and “enjoyed learning about Canada and Toronto and making friendships.”

Every Canadian has a refugee story. It could be your story or that of a family member, friend, client, colleague or neighbour. It could also be a story you heard about on the radio, TV or online. Together, let us honour women refugees for their courage and strength, and recognize the gifts they bring with them to Canada.

Learn more about how YWCA Toronto’s JUMP settlement support program works with newcomer women and girls in Scarborough and Etobicoke.