By Justine Nkurunziza
The perception of Canada as a welcoming country extends far beyond our borders, and it’s something we can be proud of. In the last few years, while more and more nations have prioritized national interest over humanitarian need, Canada has remained open to foreigners and continued to stand by multiculturalism as central to our identity.
And yet, even with this cultural mosaic as a guiding principle, our good intentions can fall short of truly offering a place of welcome for newcomers. Barriers in Canadian policy, including challenges associated with the transfer and recognition of foreign credentials, affordable housing, social services, and access to employment, have meant that refugees face an increased uphill battle to establish themselves upon arrival.
Justine Nkurunziza is a protected refugee from Burundi. She fled the country in May 2015 following political unrest surrounding the announcement from president Pierre Nkurunziza (no relation) that he, against the Burundian constitution, would be running for a third term. As a result of assassinations, torture, and other crimes committed against those who opposed the president’s rule, she spent a year and a half in Rwanda. In September 2016, she had little choice but to turn to Canada for safety.
Justine holds a BA in social sciences from the University of Burundi and, before coming to Canada, was well-established in her career, holding jobs at ActionAid International, USAID, and the US embassy in Burundi.
What Justine quickly realized, however, was that the land of opportunity she had hoped for left much to be desired. Between the challenges of isolation, trauma, poverty, and dispossession, many refugees are caught up in a whirlwind of new obstacles to overcome.
Thanks to Carty House, an Ottawa-based home away from home for refugee women, Justine was able to secure housing. Sadly, many other challenges persist.
Justine was gracious enough to share her story and examine a few policy issues that have stood in the way of her ability to receive a full welcome in Canada.
—Deb Mebude, CPJ’s public justice intern
“Yes!” I thought. “Once I’m in Canada all my dreams as a refugee will be complete!”
I thought you could come here as a doctor, physician, engineer, construction worker, or journalist. As an immigrant, you think you’ll be considered at the same level as your Canadian counterparts. But once you land in Canada, your dream is over because you don’t have “Canadian experience.”
Your diploma, qualifications, and experience mean nothing. You start to wonder why. You feel humiliated intellectually. Your self-esteem is challenged and you start to ask yourself what kind of integration Canada is expecting from you.
Once you’re here, only your secondary school is recognized. But why is this? This is discrimination. African, Asian, and Caribbean universities follow Northern programs.
So you try to weigh your options. Shall I go back to university and get a Canadian diploma, or get a cleaning job to make money to survive and gain Canadian experience?
But what is Canadian experience to a physician or an engineer?
Canada does welcome immigrants. But they should be welcomed with all their dignity, which includes the recognition of their qualifications and various skills.
We know newcomers tend to concentrate in major cities such as Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa. But strategies to provide more social services, such as social housing, in smaller towns should be put in place. This would encourage immigrants to move to small towns where the communities need their valuable services.
Canada is one of the most welcoming countries in the world. It should consider how these issues impact immigrants’ human rights. A debate on these subjects should engage people and politicians at all levels to find solutions. There are real social problems related to the integration of immigrants in Canada. If these things are addressed, I’m sure that it will bring the image of Canada to a higher level.
Justine Nkurunziza came to Canada as a refugee in September 2016. She holds a BA in social sciences from the University of Burundi and has extensive experience in the non-profit sector. Nkurunziza is a fierce advocate for just and comprehensive refugee policies in Canada.