November 14, 2013

Exploring The Factors That Challenge Refugee Immigrants’ Transition Into Canada

Kakuma is a town in the Northwestern part of Kenya that hosts the Kakuma Refugee Camp. The camp has been in existence since 1992 and currently hosts over 101,000 refugees who have fled wars in neighboring countries such as Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia (UNHCR, 2013). There are few cases of Ugandans, Burundians and Congolese at the camp, but their numbers are not as high. Most refugees eventually migrate to other countries (mostly developed countries), and face several challenges as they try and adjust into their new environment. I want to share some of these challenges with you in the sections below.

I had the chance of interacting with individuals who immigrated to Canada on refugee status, some formerly at Kakuma Camp while others were generally from different East African countries. All these individuals shared one thing in common- they were brought up consuming fresh organic fruits, vegetables, animal products and meat linked to their culture. They shared with me their experiences on the accessibility of culturally appropriate foods in Canada and how these experiences have influenced their lifestyle.

A number of these immigrants originally came from communities that prepare foods with lots of different spices and a variety of organic vegetables which are hard to obtain, especially in a small city like Guelph; therefore commuting to a bigger city such as Toronto is often the easier way to obtain these commodities. The commute is one that takes up time that would have been invested in studies or work (for those employed) and this compromises each person’s priorities. None of the individuals I talked to found it necessary to lose out on making ‘an extra buck’ at their workplace or forgo school for the purpose of obtaining ethnic foods.

Remittance is another factor that influences these individual’s decisions to travel to the Greater Toronto Area or other culturally diverse cities to purchase cultural foods products. There is generally a sense of obligation for refugee immigrants to send money back to their family members besides fending for their own livelihoods here in Canada; this affects their mobility to these big cities where they can access ethnic foods from their culture.

Many refugee immigrants initially receive funding from the government to help them settle down, but after some time the benefits decline and they have to search for alternative sources of income. Often times, they lack adequate income and this influences the types of foods they purchase and the grocery stores from which they buy these foods. Since most refugee immigrants closely manage their wallet sizes, they end up settling for basic foods sold in supermarkets such as rice, pasta, beans and eggs thus leading to acculturation, with an affinity for relatively unhealthy processed foods with longer shelf lives.

Through the course of my discussion with some of these individuals, they expressed their health concerns with the foods available in Canada. They are aware of how cheap and readily available fast foods are but their greater concern lies within the consequences of consuming such foods and how it would affect their personal health and wellness. As they try to avoid developing chronic diseases and obesity by reducing consumption of unhealthy foods, they also put themselves at risk of nutrition deficiency because the vegetable portion of their diet is often missing. Their reasons for not buying vegetables are linked to the prices of these items and the lack of knowledge on what some of the vegetables in the stores are, therefore opting to stick to food items with which they were familiar.

Nostalgic memories of how different dishes are prepared in their original home came up during our discussions, and this brought about cravings for these cultural foods. I learned that most of these individuals attend potlucks hosted by an individual from an East African community at least once every four months. The attendees, who recognize the rarity of these vegetables and condiments, are usually assigned the task of preparing certain types of food in order to diversify the dishes on the table during the event. The potluck has been a useful way of helping every person overcome their homesickness as well as helping them preserve their cultural heritage in their new country and environment.



United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (2013). 2013 UNHCR country operations profile – Kenya. Retrieved from

Angela Nyawira Kabii - URA
ECVOntario, SEDRD, University of Guelph
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