Edmonton settlement workers helping new immigrants, refugees through COVID-19 pandemic

Settlement workers in Edmonton say they are trying their best to support new immigrants and refugees, some of whom arrived shortly before the Canadian border closed to non-essential travel.

School and library closures, as well as social distancing, have forced the Edmonton Immigrant Services Association (EISA) to change the way it helps newcomers.

EISA’s main office in the Queen Mary Park neighbourhood remains open, serving clients by appointment, but 90 per cent of staff are now working from home.

In a Thursday interview with CBC’s Radio Active, Oliver Kamau said due to COVID-19, his clients have a heightened desire for quick and accurate information. Kamau is EISA’s program manager of settlement services.

“The challenge we have right now is communicating to the clients, particularly the parents,” he said.

Settlement workers are busy answering questions about the spread of COVID-19, financial barriers, employment insurance and child care.

Kamau expects questions from parents will increase when school resumes next week and K-12 students begin receiving online instruction and assignments.

As cases of COVID-19 continue to increase, settlement workers are sharing translated health information with clients and warning of disinformation on social media.

Oliver Kamau manages settlement services at EISA. (Oliver Kamau)

The association will also deliver free English classes online through the spring.

Most staff at Catholic Social Services are also working from home and serving people virtually, but some services involved with settling government-assisted refugees are considered essential and still take place in person.

The agency is helping refugees who are self-isolating because they recently arrived from another country or feel sick.

“We need to make sure that if they do need to self-isolate or quarantine, that they are able to still have food in their houses or have any of their essential needs, medications, that sort of thing,” said Kathryn Friesen, CSS’s director of immigration and settlement service.

Over the weekend, the agency helped a family expecting a baby by assisting with transportation to the hospital, ensuring child care was in place and communicating new health protocols.

“The baby was born, the family is happy and we’re excited Canada now has a new citizen!” Friesen said.

Though the work can be challenging and more time-consuming than usual, Friesen said settlement workers are coming together to make sure people are supported and feel less isolated.

Advocates say because of the pandemic, feeding children has become harder for new Canadians and refugees in Edmonton.

Community groups, the Islamic Family Social Services Agency, and nonprofits are all trying to address that problem.

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