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Q&A with the authors of Mobilizing to support those most in need: the importance of diasporic social capital during the COVID-19 pandemic

September 01, 2023
Image of a food bank stocking bags of food

Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration program Senior Research Associate Melissa Kelly and Senior Research Fellow and Project Lead Ashika Niraula collaborated on a recent paper (external link)  for which they drew on their individual research results assessing the value of diasporas as social capital.

Melissa and Ashika, you both conducted different research projects; yet, you were able to integrate your results to provide one holistic view of the impact of a diaspora during the COVID-19 pandemic. How did your different studies comprise the two sides of the same coin?

AN: This published article draws a lot from the findings of Melissa’s larger project that focused specifically on the role of diaspora communities in providing support before, during and after the pandemic. The DEMA project that I am involved in examined the stakeholders’ perspectives on the lived experiences of highly skilled migrants and international students in Canada, including the pandemic-related support provided by the formal organizations during the pandemic period. As the DEMA project explored the social, economic and policy factors that influence the decision-making of highly skilled migrants and international students, the results provided a comparative view of how the diaspora communities functioned during the pandemic relative to other more formalized supports and services, such as through the government, settlement services, educational institutions and other organizations.

MK: We realized that both our separate results had a common link in revealing the impact of diaspora communities during the pandemic. During the pandemic, we all heard anecdotal stories about the important work being done by diasporic communities; yet, to our surprise, there were few academic studies on how diasporic communities had mobilized to help those in need. We both recognized that the crisis of the pandemic could be treated as a case study to gain a deeper understanding of how diasporas function as social capital to immigrants in times of crisis. The pandemic itself was an unprecedented crisis, where thousands of immigrants faced precarity and uncertainty at a level never seen before in our lifetime.

Why does this paper focus solely on the actions of the South Asian community when there are many diaspora communities in Canada?

MKThere are around 2.6 million people with South Asian backgrounds living in Canada, making South Asian the largest visible minority category in the country. Over the years, South Asians have established a range of diaspora organizations and are known to be very active when it comes to organizing cultural and religious community events. Given both the sheer size of the South Asian population and its high level of coordination, we thought it would be interesting to explore how South Asian diasporic communities responded to the challenges posed by the pandemic and, in particular, what kind of action they took to support those most in need.

AN: There has been growing evidence of diaspora communities making substantial contributions to support humanitarian action amid crisis situations in their home countries, regions of origin or host countries. They have experience navigating the complex context of crisis and emergency situations (such as war, earthquakes, famine, and other calamities). Their prompt and effective response to support South Asian immigrants and international students, the largest visible minority group in Canada, during the pandemic crisis was an excellent example of diaspora engagement and resilience.

Can you give us an idea of what the experience was like for South Asian immigrants during the pandemic?      

AN: As we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted millions of lives across the world. Unlike any other crisis, the pandemic was unique due to the global state of prolonged uncertainty and the overwhelming anxiety it caused. As in many countries in the world, migrant populations were severely affected by the pandemic in Canada. Many immigrants and international students were working in hard hit sectors like hospitality and health care and were first to lose their jobs. Many temporary visa holders and international students were not able to fulfill the eligibility requirements to receive government-funded financial support, such as Canada Emergency Response Benefit. And further, due to the highly unexpected and uncertain nature of the pandemic, no one in the service roles (officials at Immigration Citizenship and Refugees Canada, settlement service providers, post-secondary institutions) was prepared or well equipped to deal with the challenges brought by the pandemic. The immigrants and international students were often confused and lacked access to resources and information.

Often having to deal with their own grief and pain of losing friends and family members back home, members of the diasporic communities moved beyond [their own concerns] and joined hands to create ethnic networks and technologies that would help ensure the flow of accurate information and useful resources. The diaspora communities could mobilize quickly in a way that others could not.

In your paper you provide examples of the kind of help the members of the diaspora provided – from getting meals to international students to providing information on quarantine rules and meeting with individuals just to talk. What example of support did you uncover that most surprised you?

AN: For me, the ways the diaspora communities, in particular social and religious institutions, including gurdwaras and temples, deployed culturally and religiously appropriate mental health support for South Asian immigrants and international students stood out the most. The pandemic-related economic challenges, the feeling of loneliness and uncertainty, had negative psychological impacts on immigrants and international students. Although many settlement services and postsecondary institutions organized mental health-related webinars and provided online counseling services, many South Asian immigrants and international students were reluctant to access such support because it was considered a taboo subject in their culture. But from within the diaspora, they were able to get the support they needed.

MK: Many community leaders (and associated groups of volunteers) went above and beyond to support new immigrants and international students who moved to Canada during the pandemic. Some new arrivals received daily meal deliveries to ensure that they had access to food that was aligned with their cultural and religious dietary needs. Many others were provided with temporary accommodation. This allowed recent immigrants and international students to focus on meeting mandatory testing and quarantine requirements rather than worrying about their day-to-day needs upon arrival in Canada. It also meant that they did not feel disoriented or alone, despite arriving in a completely new country amid a global pandemic.

With a new understanding of how strong a diaspora can function as social capital, what actions would you like to see take place at the policy level?

AN: Although diasporas have been at the forefront of assisting immigrants and international students during the pandemic in Canada, their contribution has been poorly acknowledged in the academic and policy contexts. There is so much that the government, settlement services and other humanitarian agencies can learn from the diaspora communities, such as how to respond to needs in ways that are culturally sensitive.

Our analysis also showed that there is room to greatly increase coordination between these actors (e.g., diaspora, government agencies, settlement services, and other NGOs) to ensure a more localized and effective response to tackle a crisis situation.

MK: Based on the findings of our research, many immigrants would not have been able to weather the pandemic in Canada if it weren’t for the extraordinary efforts of diasporic communities.

In my view, the essential work undertaken by diasporic communities should be recognized, not just symbolically but through the provision of greater government resources to support their efforts. Although they played a particularly important role during the pandemic, diasporic communities are continuing to do a lot to help immigrants and international students on a daily basis and would benefit greatly from extra support. Policymakers should also explore ways to better leverage the networks, knowledge and knowhow of these communities, as they clearly have so much to contribute.