This article shows how a handful of senior BC refugees immigrants receive a minimum payment per year from the BC government but many more live on much less.
Many older Canadian immigrants live on less than $11,000 per year
Newcomers face significant financial and communication challenges
Zahra Khaleghi was 52 years old when she came to Canada as a refugee. She had five children to look after and spoke no English. On Tuesday, she and other immigrant seniors will share their stories with key decision-makers at a forum called Moving Forward: Unheard Voices. Photo credit: Tara Carman
METRO VANCOUVER — Zahra Khaleghi was 52 years old when she came to Canada as a refugee just over a decade ago. She had no ability to communicate in English and five children to look after.
The family squeezed into an apartment in Coquitlam, where Khaleghi deteriorated in a spiral of isolation and depression. She tried to take some English classes, but was unable to retain anything due to stress and anxiety. Her condition was so severe that she was unable to work, hospitalized several times and ultimately medicated.
Not long before coming to Canada, the war in her native Afghanistan claimed her three brothers. Three of the children now in her care are nieces and nephews. The deaths came while she was still mourning her husband, also killed in the Afghan war, when she was two months pregnant.
Immigrants and refugees who come to Canada later in life face unique challenges in terms of income, livelihood and social integration, said Chris Friesen, director of settlement services for the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. The problems are especially acute for seniors who are not from one of the region’s larger ethnocultural communities, such as Chinese, Indian or Filipino, where larger social networks are in place. They represent a small but growing share of immigrants to B.C. and Canada, Friesen said.
“The new and few, we call them.”
Recent policy changes have made things more difficult for immigrant seniors, who typically come to Canada either as sponsored family members or refugees, Friesen said. Citizenship and Immigration Canada recently increased the amount of time families must commit to financially supporting relatives to 20 years from 10 years, which means that only the wealthiest families are able to be reunited on a permanent basis. On the refugee side, Canada now selects people based on need of protection versus ability to settle.
“All these things are colliding together that impact the livelihood and life and dignity of these folks as they age in Canada,” Friesen said. “What was kind of an eye opener for me is, if you arrive at 65 and you have no financial means, your baseline entitlement is under $11,000 (per year) that you have to live on. On top that, if you’re a refugee, not only is it less than $11,000 but you also have to repay your transportation loan that provided you the opportunity to come to Canada.”
Alicia Zapata, who will also address the forum, came to Canada from Colombia at age 40.
“For me, the biggest barrier was getting more education. I am a social worker and I want to take more education about my career. I want to take more English … but I don’t have money to (pursue) my career,” said Zapata, now 64.
She took classes in English and First Aid and volunteered in the community, but none of it helped her get a job. A single mother of two, she eventually yielded to financial pressure and advice to forget about her career and took two grocery store jobs to pay the bills. But it still wasn’t enough, so she became a cleaner.
There were other challenges, as well.
“When I tried to rent a house (for) the first time, when I tried to start my own life with my kids, nobody rents you a house when you are alone and you’re a senior,” she said, explaining that potential landlords didn’t believe she’d have the money to pay rent.
Zapata now spends time every Wednesday at the South Granville Seniors Centre, providing a friendly point of contact for Spanish-speaking seniors and letting them know about the many resources available in the community. She also employs seniors in her cleaning business.
She has no shortage of opinions on what the government can do to make things easier. The Canada Pension Plan, she says, should be reviewed to make it “a little more fair,” noting that there are many barriers and requirements. In a good month, she might get $1,000. “How do you live on that?”
She also thinks newly-arrived seniors should have their own English classes. It was intimidating, she said, to be in a class with much younger students when she arrived in Canada.
“You can’t teach (seniors) like you teach somebody younger.”
She has also noticed a need for counselling among seniors who come from places such as Afghanistan and Somalia, who are often suffering from significant psychological trauma.
Khaleghi said counselling would have made a big difference for her, but there was no one she could communicate with. There is a tendency within the Afghan community not to talk about such experiences, she said, and that is something she is working to change.
For Khaleghi as well, community was something of a salvation. She is now on the board of directors of the Afghan senior program, which has grown to 150 participants from about a dozen five years ago. They meet once a week in the basement of a Christian church in Burnaby to share food, stories and celebrate traditional events. They also arrange home and hospital visits for Afghan seniors, Khaleghi told The Sun through a translator.
Khaleghi says she is “very happy” to be in Canada. In Iran, where the family lived for 18 years before coming to Canada, it was not safe and she could still hear the bombs she fled in Afghanistan in her mind every night. There, she says, she was afraid for her children’s future, but here she knows that both her own children — and her brother’s — will be safe and get a good education.