immigration, gender role, agency, resistance and resilience, employment, identity

Gender Role and Employment Practices of Refugee Newcomers in Canada

November 19, 2021

Bio: Fatima Jalali-Tehrani is a PhD candidate in the Languages, Cultures and Literacies program in SFU’s Faculty of Education. Fatima recently won the Faculty of Education first-place award for her 3MT presentation about challenges newcomers face during the current wave of globalization. Her interest in mass migration has led her to research how gender, identity, and agency play key roles in resettlement of newcomers to Canada. She is exploring how gender, religion, and social class (re)form both immigrant identity and perpetuate systematic (in)equities in discourse.

When you began your doctoral studies at SFU, one of your goals was to help refugee and immigrant populations define their new identity through an effective language-curriculum design. Can you explain why your research took you down a different pathway?

I began volunteering with the Muslim Food Bank (MFB) in 2016. At that time, many members were not taking public EAL classes, due to very long waitlists as well as their hesitancy to venture into a public space. A grassroot education group was formed, and I took on the positions of teacher, curriculum planner, and trainer of EAL teachers. Gradually I became part of the community, engaging in activities beyond the educational context such as attending potluck lunches, outings, and hospital visits.

One of my main research interests has been how newcomers of refugee and immigrant backgrounds navigate and struggle to (re)construct their identities. Initially I imagined language-curriculum design as a lens to view the identity struggles of immigrants. But at the time I started my PhD studies, MFB program coordinators had become concerned about employment rejection among members. They contacted me to help them study the issue and possibly develop ways to deal with this challenge. Especially puzzling to them was the dissonance between apparent motivation to seek employment—as evidenced by seeking employment counselling and support—and eventual rejection of job opportunities. They noticed that newcomers would express interest in and need for finding a job. However, after working with social workers to find opportunities and undergoing successful interviews, sometimes they would reject employment offers or accept offers but not appear for work. This reluctance to accept employment was impacting not only family dynamics and inter- and intra-group relations, but also provincial government economics since newcomers receive governmental financial assistance until they become employed. MFB also reported hearing about similar issues with respect to employment from their colleagues in other immigrant and refugee programs, suggesting that this is a widespread, urgent problem.

In your award-winning 3MT talk, you told a story about immigrants’ real experiences with displacement and the challenges of “landing” in Canada. What inspired you to incorporate these experiences into your dissertation and focus on the theme of “landing”?

Through my ethnographic research with the immigrant population as well as living and experiencing challenges with them, I realized that while landing within the geographical context of Canada might seem like the main step of the resettlement process, newcomers face several other obstacles before they can actually “land.” These obstacles are often overlooked, but I believe they need to receive careful and timely attention; they affect not only immigrants, their families, and their diasporic community but also the Canadian community at large. “Landing a Job,” as I have named my 3MT presentation, is surely one of the most important steps of resettlement, and my research explores this.

You explored underlying dynamics causing some immigrants to give up and some to persevere in landing a job. How did you research that question, and what did you discover?

In my ethnographic study I used a narrative approach, enabling newcomers to tell their own stories and add their voices to cocreate this study. Through several participants’ stories, I unfolded important themes of resistance and resilience as forms of agency for immigrants. I found that willingness to accept employment opportunities was often related to flexibility and resilience in taking on new roles. This flexibility and resilience appeared to be related to socially constructed gender. Paradoxically, agreeing to take on whatever job is offered is not always equivalent to passivity or dependence. Rather, this willingness speaks to an inner strength of agency, often shown by the women in my research. While women faced more struggles with dynamics of employment such as working conditions, hours, and family obligation, they showed more resiliency in the entry-level jobs offered to them, while the male population seemed more inclined to resist available positions. Further, this resilience and flexibility seem to be the cornerstone for building more desirable careers and opportunities post- migration.

What are some challenges you faced during your research process?

Being qualitative, my study involved many home visits, real-life interactions, and field observations. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I could not continue meeting my participants in person. While we adapted to this new normal and continued our connection via Zoom, this change had its challenges. Had I been conducting quantitative research, the pandemic might have not hit me that hard. But for this ethnographic study I observe, think with, and analyze not only stories told by the participants but all the environmental and (non)material surroundings such as sounds, smells, visual settings, and social and cultural interactions. So even though I had generated most of the participant data when the pandemic began, adapting to this change and settling for it were not easy.

What experiences were highlights for you? What did you learn?

I found it an extraordinary and inspirational experience to learn about the ways newcomers take on different forms of agency and gain strength and power to make changes. With a long family history of immigration and my resent resettlement in Canada, I related with many of the struggles my research participants faced. Through this ethnographic research, I have lived, learned, and become empowered by their strengths, worldviews, and experiences.

What impacts or outcomes do you envision or hope for as a result of your research?

The findings of this study will, I hope, shed light on newcomers’ employment struggles and help identify factors leading to success in employment. This study can be useful not only to incoming immigrants who aim to integrate socially and invest in desired employment, but also to larger host communities. Some possible future directions for such research are to implement these findings in curriculum and instructional planning for language and vocational programs for newcomers to Canada, such as LINC and SUCCESS, which aim to prepare the newcomer population for the job market and integrating in social contexts. Such research could influence the employment rates of refugee newcomers in Canada, positively impacting the Canadian economy and society at large.