Resettling as a refugee during the pandemic

bird's eye view of Downtown Toronto with the CN Tower

Refugees resettling in Canada have to follow a long and complicated path to get their status. With the pandemic, the process takes even longer. And being recognized as a refugee is sometimes not even enough to be allowed to travel to their new home.

Somayeh, a 38 year-old woman from Iran, finally came to Toronto in September 2020, long after receiving her refugee status. Originally from Tehran, she was raised a Muslim but became a Christian. Because of this conversion, she had to flee her native country for Turkey with her sister and nephew. 

“In Iran, you don’t have freedom of religion. If the government finds out that you converted, they can put you in prison,” explains Somayeh who asked CJRU not to include her last name.

In Turkey for several years, they grew desperate because of the waiting times to be officially granted asylum in a country hosting 3.6 million refugees, the highest number in the world. Then they heard about a church private sponsorship program that changed everything.

“In Turkey it can take 5, 6 years or even longer. We heard about a church in Canada that supports refugees, we applied to their program and we got accepted”, Somayeh says

Rudy Ovcjak, Director of the Office for Refugees of the Archdiocese of Toronto, an organization that helped Somayeh and thousands more to come to Canada. Ovcjak believes that private sponsorship of refugees are a good alternative to government-sponsored programs.

“When our parish gets involved, we have volunteers 24/7 providing extraordinary assistance – financial, emotional or spiritual – to help refugees through their journey,” details Ovcjak.

But when Somayeh received her status, the pandemic had already reached Canada. Despite being officially recognized as a refugee, her new country would not let her in.

“From March to July 2020, Immigration Canada halted refugee resettlement to Canada, period. It was a prudent step to protect the Canadian population. But all of the sudden, these refugees that had been waiting for years living in difficult circumstances had to be put on hold again,” explains Ovcjak.

With summer coming, restrictions were eased and finally in September Somayeh was authorized to fly to Canada with her sister and nephew.

“It was very difficult for us as strangers in a new country. We had to quarantine when we arrived, and the church members couldn’t meet with us. But everything was provided to us. An apartment, food and furniture,” she recalls.

It was particularly difficult for her 16 years old nephew. He had less avenues to make friends and only had online classes to pass the time. Now Somayeh attends workshops online to improve her language skills and to learn about the job market in Canada. She is eager to discover her new country when life gets back to normal.

“We had a very difficult life before, now we are very happy to be in a safe country. Hopefully after this pandemic is gone, we will have a bright future,” Somayeh says.

To hear more, listen to the segment below. This is the third in a four-part series exploring the experience of newcomers to Canada navigating the pandemic.