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Are small towns doing enough to make immigrants feel welcome?

Study shows programs and services can’t be ‘one size fits all’

UBC researchers have determined that efforts to make immigrants feel welcome in small, rural towns often miss the mark — despite the good intentions.

Assistant Prof. Susana Caxaj, along with Navjot Gill, recently published research examining the well-being of rural immigrants and whether they feel connected to their communities. Caxaj says a sense of belonging, or a lack of one, can impact the mental health and well-being among immigrant residents — the same residents who may not readily use available mental health services.

According to the last Census Canada poll, immigrants and refugees make up 20 per cent of Canada’s population. Caxaj, who teaches in UBC Okanagan’s School of Nursing, says while many immigrants move to urban communities, the populations in small towns are at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing mental health services.

“In rural areas, pathways for mental illness prevention, treatment, and mental health promotion are complicated by a variety of factors including limited services,” says Caxaj. “And while rural immigrant populations may be more likely to experience mental health challenges, such as anxiety and depression, it is sometimes harder for these populations to access help.”

During a 12-month study in B.C.’s southern Interior, research assistant Gill met with first- to third-generation immigrant residents and conducted community visits, consultations, and focus groups to discuss their sense of belonging. Most participants worked in agriculture and had been in Canada from two to 30 years.

Gill notes that rural communities establish programs and specific practices for immigrants and refugees, but sometimes those initiatives simply miss the mark.

“It’s often different in urban metro areas and there is a definite benefit from the high concentration of immigrant groups in terms of well-being,” she said. “But we can’t assume what works in a large community is applicable to immigrants in a small rural town.”

Gill’s findings indicate that local residents face several tensions while trying to establish a place of their own in their community. Such tensions contradict the idea of ‘small-town life,’ where folks are connected simply by living and working together. “Community members want strong intergenerational bonds that celebrate their unique culture. They want services that are flexible to an agricultural immigrant family. But they also are very aware that small towns pose unique strengths and challenges to getting there,” says Gill.

She does suggest these tensions can be addressed through creative service provision, collaborative decision-making, and diversity-informed program planning. For example, along with organizing language lessons for youth and computer lessons for older adults, and making public places, like recreation centres a place with more diverse representation, physical spaces for social gatherings could be a huge support to families who feel isolated.

“In the current global climate we’re seeing a lot of rhetoric about racism, and as Canadians we want to believe where we live is an understanding place, but it is a huge jump to get from mere intention towards intentional planning,” says Caxaj. “There is a lot to be developed and we need to be asking the questions on the ground. Immigrant families often have answers and creative solutions, but they need the support of their service providers and local leadership to truly thrive and feel a sense of belonging.

The research was funded by the Rural Health Services Research Network Team Building Award and was recently published in Qualitative Health Research.

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