The plight of immigrant women from eastern Europe

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I live in Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities the world. Almost half of Toronto’s population is foreign-born. While most immigrants are visible minorities, there are still a substantial number coming from eastern Europe. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of research on this group.

In recent months, I have met a number of women immigrants from eastern Europe. Their stories have deeply affected me.

These women came here with hope and the expectation of a better life. But instead, they are worse off. They bitterly regret their choice to immigrate. Encountering barriers to decent employment, they have become impoverished, exhausted, and depressed. And they have lost the hope  that brought them here.

Their despair is such that they pour out their stories to a sympathetic stranger. What strikes me is their profound sense of betrayal.

Most of the women I’ve met are well-educated professionals in low skilled jobs. According to a recent Statistics Canada report, immigrants are university-educated at double the rate of native-born Canadians. Yet among recent university-educated immigrants, 28% of men and 40% of women held low skilled jobs in 2006, compared to 10% and 12% of native-born Canadians. Even among immigrants who have been here 11 to 15 years, 12% of men and 24% of women held low paying jobs in 2006, according to the report‘s authors Galarneau and Morisette. So there is not only a gap between university-educated immigrants and native-born Canadians, but also between males and females.

The women I talked with all said that if they could, they would go back. But each of them faces major obstacles.For example, one woman’s husband had a heart attack while visiting the U.S. and the medical bills mean she now has to work two jobs. He is unable to travel.  Another woman and her husband immigrated with a young child, now a teenager, who no longer speaks the language. They feel that their child’s needs require them to stay here.

Language is an issue for many of these women. When they immigrated, they were unaware that their credentials would not be recognized. They had to immediately take low-paying jobs to survive. There was no time or money for English language courses. Although their English has greatly improved over the years, they still have major limitations that prevent them from getting better jobs.

I’m not sure what aspects of this situation I want to study. In part, it depends on what has already been studied and what is still unknown. But I do know I’m very moved by the plight of these women.

There is one aspect that intrigues me. All the women I spoke with expressed overtly racist ideas. They blamed visible minorities, particularly blacks, for the crime and poor living conditions in their neighbourhood. In their view, blacks are “animals” and “garbage”. They also are very angry with people on welfare, who are “lazy” and “getting a free ride”, whereas these immigrants are working themselves into exhaustion at any jobs they can find in order to survive.

I believe that exploring these women’s attitudes would contribute to intersectionality theory on racism. The intersection of race, immigration status, downward social mobility, gender, language skills, health, age, all seem to play a role. However, I’m not sure how much it might contribute to expanding their options for a better future.

I know these women feel that they are invisible and that their voices don’t count. What do they have to teach us about their experiences that might help their own lives to improve as well as the lives of other kinds of immigrants? I plan to explore this question in this blog in the weeks to come.

© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2008

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