Increasing social connectivity and wellness for newcomers in Burnaby: A community-engaged research story

November 30, 2022
This blog features a research project conducted by two SFU graduate students, Azra Bhanji and Catherine Trudeau. Titled “Social Connectivity in the time of COVID-19: A Participatory Needs Assessment using Photovoice to understand the needs of racialized newcomers in Burnaby," it was funding in part through the Community-Engaged Research Funding Program. It is guest-authored by Melissa Sharp of the Burnaby Primary Care Networks, a key community partner in the research project. 

Social isolation spiked during the early days of the COVID-19 — with ramifications for the health and wellness of our minds, bodies, and communities. These effects were amplified for newcomer communities who are already more likely to be isolated by factors like communication barriers, cultural barriers and the complex process of settlement in Canada.

In collaboration with Burnaby community agencies, Principal Investigator Dr. Surita Parashar and Research Advisor Anna Vorobyova, SFU Master of Public Health students Azra Bhanji and Catherine Trudeau conducted a participatory research project to address the impacts of social isolation on racialized newcomers in Burnaby.

This collaborative community research project was born out of a need identified by the Burnaby Primary Care Networks Social Isolation Working Group. With community agencies, family physicians, the City of Burnaby and Fraser Health around the table, the working group wanted to know: what could Burnaby community organizations do to address barriers to social connectivity? And how could they build on opportunities shared by newcomers to ideate innovative and sustainable solutions?

The BC Centre for Disease Control describes social isolation as the “disengagement from social ties, institutional connections, or community participation.” It is a known social determinant of health for many health conditions, including anxiety, depression, addiction, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and premature mortality.

Social connectivity is the opposite of social isolation. It is a sense of belonging to a group or community and is associated with having personal relationships and engagement with the broader community.

Over the course of several months from Fall 2021 to Spring 2022, research leads Bhanji and Trudeau engaged several cohorts of newcomers from different language-speaking groups — including English, Tigrinya, Farsi and Mandarin — with the aim of reaching some of Burnaby’s most isolated individuals.

By using photography as a research tool to spark group discussions, newcomers in Burnaby explored how COVID-19 has affected social connection, and the roles community organizations can have to help us feel more connected.

Participants shared experiences of disconnection from family, friends, and core supports, alongside feelings of loneliness and longing to visit the places they had left behind. They expressed that they had encountered barriers to connection such as unfriendliness and racism from other residents, fears around leaving the home or entering places they used to frequent and difficulties communicating and understanding spoken English without the visual aid of lip reading due to masking — to name a few.

The project culminated in a community celebration on Nov. 3 at the Ismaili Centre Vancouver, where research participants and community agency representatives gathered to discuss and share the results with the larger community.

 “We have a much stronger and thorough understanding of the experiences of Burnaby residents during the pandemic,” said Bhanji.

“And although the project prioritized newcomers from racialized communities, some of the experiences and barriers encountered can be felt by all residents.”

The findings of this project will also inform and help shape Burnaby’s mental health strategy beyond the pandemic. 

“As some of the facilitators also noted, some of the challenges contributing to social isolation were not dependent on the pandemic, but the pandemic did make it worse. So, there are some really good insights on how we can increase social connection in Burnaby from community members,” said Bhanji.

She noted the importance of a mix of virtual and in-person programs, incorporating art, fostering feelings of safety and belonging, as well as the lack of awareness of the rich and diverse community services offered by Burnaby agencies.

Lin Lin, a co-facilitator for the Mandarin-speaking cohort, reflected on the relevance of the project: “The experience of working with social connectivity research program has been illuminating. I used to be a radio journalist, so social justice and equality have always been on my radar screen.

“Racism, ageism, sexism — they were not new to me even in the context of COVID. But having said that, I think that I may have overlooked the impact of how COVID has shaped, or re-shaped, individuals’ lives.

“I never imagined it could be so difficult for newcomers when it comes to getting access to social services they deserve — which I would see as the necessity and urgency for social service agencies to build helping and trusting relations with people from racialized communities.”

The project was made possible with further funding from Vancouver Foundation and additional support from the Burnaby Division of Family PracticeBurnaby Primary Care NetworksImmigrant Services Society of BCBurnaby Neighbourhood House, and YWCA Techlink.

Learn more about the “Social Connectivity in the Time of COVID-19" project in this Phase 1 report.

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