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Coming to Canada in a time of COVID

Why the pandemic’s isolation and loneliness are especially hard for newcomers.

By: /
17 March, 2021
The author in northern Pakistan before moving to Canada.

This letter is to confirm that you have been granted a conditional admission …” My eyes raced through the rest of email that arrived in my inbox one year ago, barely registering details. What mattered was that I had been accepted to complete a project management program at Royal Roads University and would soon be leaving Pakistan for Canada, something I had dreamed about for years. I immediately began to prepare for the move.

Only days later, however, the world seemed to grind to a halt and so did my plans for a new life. The COVID-19 pandemic made international travel impossible. I could barely leave my home in Karachi. I stayed inside and stewed there. I worried about the money I had spent on tuition. I wondered if I would ever see Canada. My classes began online, but these were nothing like what I had hoped for. I was an international student at a Canadian school but was studying in the same house in Pakistan I grew up in. 

“The world seemed to grind to a halt and so did my plans for a new life in Canada.”

Then, last fall, the Canadian government eased its COVID measures and opened its borders to international students. I felt the same sense of excitement I had when I first read the acceptance email months earlier.

On my flight from Karachi to Vancouver, however, I started to question my decision to fly across continents to a new country with no friends or family during a global pandemic. These doubts didn’t ease during my 14-day quarantine in the basement room in Vancouver that was my new home. In Karachi, I lived in a house full of people. I often couldn’t find quiet if I wanted to. Now, there was no one to talk to, to cook for me or offer me any help at all. I was sharing the basement with two sisters from Panama who were in Canada to learn English. Our linguistic limitations made it hard to communicate. Despite living with housemates, I was still alone. The only time I felt taken care of was when a stranger from Health Canada called to make sure I was continuing to quarantine.

I had done some research before coming to Canada, so I could at least order groceries online and didn’t starve. But, when I was finally able to venture outside, I learned Vancouver is not a cheap place to live and my expenses would surpass the budget I had planned before coming to Canada.

I did some quick math and realized my savings would be gone in a few months. I needed a job. My financial worries added to the stress of loneliness. I had no idea how I would find work in the midst of a pandemic when so many businesses were shut down and so many people were on relief. I started questioning my decision to come to Canada all over again. I also began second-guessing my decision to come to Vancouver. My father has friends in Toronto who had offered to let me stay with them. But I had been determined to strike out on my own and turned those offers down. I could have saved a lot of money I now desperately needed.

Slowly, though, things started to turn around. After many online tests and interviews, I landed a job as a technical writer. My financial worries began to ease, but the loneliness remained. My classes were still online. I had been in Canada for more than two months but still barely knew anyone other than my housemates. I was facing challenges and achieving small successes but had no one to share these stories with. Thanks to the pandemic, most meetups and events for international students and other newcomers in Canada were put on hold, leaving me with little opportunity to make friends or meet new people.

A chance to escape from my doldrums appeared as I scrolled through my phone one day and found an app to organize socially distanced events like parking lot meetings and hiking trips. I signed up for a hiking trip with a group of five people to Maple Ridge, on the outskirts of Vancouver.

The author at Mike Lake in British Columbia’s Golden Ears Provincial Park.

One of the hikers, Mr. Artur, offered to drive me to Golden Ears Provincial Park, where the hike would start. During the drive, I told him about the loneliness I felt because of the pandemic. He told me he had come to Canada as an immigrant from Poland 30 years ago without speaking any English, at a time when online shopping and FaceTime didn’t exist. I realized I was lucky. I don’t think I could survive a day without video calling my family, but Mr. Artur would spend weeks without word from his loved ones in Poland.

Four more hikers joined us at the start of the trail. As we walked through the dense forest, we go to know each other. We shared stories of our worst hikes, cracked jokes, sang songs together and encouraged each other whenever there was a steep climb. The views along the way were incredible. When we reached our destination, Mike Lake, blue, shimmering and half-covered in ice, I asked Angelus, the hike organizer, to take my photo. We rested for 30 minutes at the lake and then hiked back. It was the first time in months that I spoke, laughed and shared stories about my life with someone. I had finally made my first friends in Canada. Now we go on hikes around Vancouver every Saturday.

Today, I look back at that hike as a turning point. The pandemic is still difficult, perhaps especially so for newcomers like me. We lack most of the networks and support that long-time residents of Canada have. But I no longer feel like I’m facing the pandemic and the challenges it presents completely alone. Even if I don’t know most people in Vancouver, I know we’re going through many of the same things together. It’s taken a while, but this place is starting to feel like home.

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