No Stranger to Isolation: The COVID 19 Experience of a Refugee Mother
After arduous journeys of forced migration, following warfare and other unimaginable threats to life, many refugees arrive in Canada alone, isolated, unable to speak the language, crowded into substandard housing, and eking by on low-income survival jobs. To a person, they had set forth on their settlement journeys with the hope that life would be better. Then, out of the blue, the COVID-19 pandemic began, and necessary but onerous isolation measures were instituted. Although essential to social health, these measures hamper settlement efforts, impede progress, and threaten – or reverse – hard-earned achievements of refugees and newcomers. The cycles of isolation, loneliness, food insecurity, poverty, overcrowding, and fear are intensified.
This is a story of human spirit and internal strength. It is about a refugee, a mother, driven to provide the best possible future for her children. It is also a story demonstrating the essential role that connection plays in sustaining hope, restoring courage, and instilling a sense purpose and belonging.
A Story of Resilience
Our story is about a woman, whom we will call Fatima, the mother of a transnational family of ten children, of whom two adult daughters are still in Jordanian refugee camps and one son, badly affected by the war, remains in their home country of Syria. Fatima struggles under the weighty fears for the safety of her children both here and far away.
Fatima arrived in Canada in 2016 with seven children, no English, and limited knowledge of Canadian society. The entire family needed to learn to navigate new neighbourhoods as well as the transit, educational, banking, and many other systems necessary to day-to-day functioning. Tied down by domestic responsibilities, Fatima relied on her husband to manage finances, shopping, interactions with community agencies, medical appointments, their children’s school, and everything else outside her home.
In October 2019 Fatima joined Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) a program designed to guide mothers to support their preschoolers’ success in school and to build bridges to her community. A HIPPY Home Visitor – who, like Fatima, was a newcomer to Canada – visited Fatima weekly to provide an easy-to-follow school readiness curriculum, which Fatima then practiced daily with her children. Despite her childcare and other domestic responsibilities, Fatima stayed committed to HIPPY from day one. She never missed a group meeting and always found time to work on the HIPPY curriculum with her son and daughter. HIPPY’s Community Navigator supported her with her family’s settlement needs and connected them with helpful community resources. For Fatima, life in Canada was falling into place.
In early March, isolation measures were implemented, and Fatima’s primary connection to the world outside – to her HIPPY Home Visitor – was threatened. However, as many might anticipate, Fatima was undeterred. She eagerly agreed to carry on with the program by moving to virtual home visits. Her only access to the technology required to participate in remote home visits was a shared mobile phone. Already a Whats App expert, accustomed to communicating with her family abroad, Fatima was able to resume her weekly engagements with the HIPPY Home Visitor and pursue daily activities with her children.
Two weeks into the isolation period, Fatima’s husband was hospitalized. She was now alone with seven children, preparing meals, keeping house, and worrying about her children overseas and her husband in the hospital – all while fasting for Ramadan. But, as you may have guessed, Fatima remained committed to working weekly with her Home Visitor and daily with her children on the HIPPY curriculum. With her family phone now at the hospital, she borrowed her teenage son’s to continue the virtual home visits. Every week, Fatima and her Home Visitor shared tears of worry and relief as well as moments of laughter in empathic companionship.
Fatima was so proud her children’s accomplishments and of the progress the family made with their Home Visitor. Fatima found that, rather than an extra duty added to her load, the focus on her children and their HIPPY activities became sources of relief to her stress.
One day Fatima received a call from her son’s school. At first, she was at a loss. Her husband usually saw to those interactions, but he was in hospital. She called her Home Visitor, but she too was unavailable. Fatima had no choice but to talk to return the school’s call herself and, much to her surprise, she understood what they wanted. It was a landmark: Fatima engaged with the school and solved the problem – in English!
Hats off to Fatima and the many other isolated refugee mothers coping in the age of COVID-19. May we all glean inspiration from her strength and determination as we each navigate through this new world.
The Mothers Matter Centre oversees the HIPPY program across Canada. Immigrant Services Society of BC offers the HIPPY program in BC. Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) funds the program at most of the Canadian sites.