Chronicling resettlement and integration

How Syrian refugee families experience settling into life in Canada

Woman from a Syrian newcomer family who arrived in Canada through the Syrian Refugee Resettlement Initiative and is also a participant in the SSHRC-funded RISE: Refugee Integration, Stress, and Equity project.

Photo: Neda Maghbouleh

As a country, we assume we have a positive attitude toward immigration, but do these perceived attitudes also translate into a feeling of welcome and belonging for refugees and others arriving in Canada? Newcomers are confronted with varying levels of stigma and discrimination, yet there are even deeper, systemic issues—related to housing and health, for example—that can make settlement challenging.

Neda Maghbouleh, Canada Research Chair in Migration, Race, and Identity and associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, examines how families that came here under the Syrian Refugee Resettlement Initiative negotiate their sense of identity while navigating the challenges they encounter as they adjust to their lives in Canada.

“We’ve seen in recent polls that Canadians have never felt better about immigration,” says Maghbouleh, “But that’s only one part of the story. Integration takes more than a positive attitude.”

Understanding complex family dynamics

Maghbouleh was born and raised in the United States, but her family’s migration from Iran in the 1960s and 1970s influenced the questions that intrigued her throughout her studies and contributed to her deciding to move to Canada.

After completing a PhD in sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Maghbouleh came to the University of Toronto as an assistant professor of sociology. As co-investigator for her initial SSHRC-funded project, she assembled a team that has the cultural and linguistic capacity to communicate effectively with Syrian newcomers.

“Being able to conduct interviews in Arabic brought huge advantages,” Maghbouleh says. “We were able to connect very deeply in a short period of time.”

Initially, Maghbouleh worked with a small, pilot-level grant, and resources were limited.

“I knew the biggest bang for our buck would come from mothers,” she says.” Almost like a window to the entire family, they are best suited to report on how their family members are doing and have a bird’s eye view of their families’ pressure points.”

Members of the RISE team led by Neda Maghbouleh (fourth from right) in 2019.

Photo: Neda Maghbouleh

With a subsequent SSHRC Insight Grant, Maghbouleh was able to create the RISE team to investigate refugee integration, stress and equity, and expand her research to include the mothers’ teenage children. Talking to two generations of one family offered her team interesting perspectives and unique observations.

Adjusting to life in Canada

To Maghbouleh’s surprise, families reported relatively few incidences of discrimination, judgment or difficult interactions with public-facing services. It became clear, however, that many refugees deal with much deeper, intersecting issues, including major health problems (such as physical or mental trauma that is often caused or exacerbated by war or other drivers of their migration) and housing challenges.

The escalating housing crisis in Canadian cities greatly affects newcomers, who face eviction, overcrowding and inadequate accommodations.

“No matter how warm the personal welcome is,” Maghbouleh says, “When people need to live in subpar conditions, you are looking at a metastasizing disaster.”

The COVID-19 pandemic underscored and worsened these issues, forcing families to stay at home in cramped quarters. This increased family stress heightened isolation, reduced well-being and damaged their sense of community belonging.

Stories worth telling

After three rounds of interviews, Maghbouleh and her team are now out of the field and into the analytical phase of their research. Although analysis is ongoing, members of the team have published research papers and given talks on preliminary findings. For World Refugee Day in 2019, Maghbouleh was invited to present her practical observations to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

Maghbouleh believes these stories would be captivating to a much broader audience and deserve to be known outside of academia and government: “The nuances and details we hear in these universal family experiences and fundamental relationships with neighbours, teachers, co-parents come together in a compelling tapestry of stories in which all Canadians can see and find themselves.”

For Maghbouleh, the optimal outcome of her work would be improved experiences for current and future immigrants and refugees to Canada.

“Forced migration due to climate change or political instability will continue to have an impact on waves of migrants who have a human right to a safe place to live,” she says. “I really hope my work can contribute to better and extended pathways for those coming to Canada.”

Want to learn more?

To learn more about Neda Maghbouleh’s research projects, visit the University of Toronto’s RISE team webpage.