Finding the beauty in the challenges

Settling in a new country in the middle of a pandemic—Yiwen Sun shares her story, and how she’s helping others build new lives in Halifax


fter extensive travelling and attending the prestigious Kedge Business School in France, Yiwen Sun faced a tough choice.

She was contemplating whether she should return home to Shanghai, China, because of greater job opportunities, stay in Europe, or move into a new country and culture.

Opting for the latter, Sun picked Halifax.

“I decided to come to Halifax because first, my boyfriend was here and then I saw how very peaceful and people here are extremely nice—the nicest people I ever met in my life,” she says. “Also, the environment, nature, and the beautiful view here.”

In July 2019, Sun submitted her immigration application. Her lawyer indicated the process would take about months. But the pandemic meant it took 13 months before she got her approval to settle in Canada.

“I should have gotten my Permanent Residency Card earlier,” she says. “We had been urging our lawyers to check; they (lawyers and immigration officials) had a lot of paperwork accumulating on their desks. They couldn’t go to work daily, and that’s why it got delayed.”

Yiwen Sun and Robert Black

Along with the stress and anxiety of waiting, Sun had additional challenges. She was also planning a small wedding with boyfriend, Robert Black. Due to international travel restrictions, her parents and friends couldn’t come to Halifax for the planned celebration. The newlyweds haven’t been able to go on their honeymoon yet, and Sun missed her graduation in France.

The job hunt has been the biggest hurdle.

“I was hoping to get a good job because I went to Kedge Business School, but because of COVID-19, the job market wasn’t good,” she says. “Lots of companies stopped hiring and (were) letting people go. I was constantly looking for jobs online every day. I tried to network with lots of organizations, and I think it really helped.”

That’s where the Immigration Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS) came to the rescue. About a month ago, the organization hired Sun to be a coordinator for its employment program. Fuelled by her recent experience, she now helps newcomers find work.

“I had a lack of confidence with the job market, and I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “Luckily, ISANS offered me this position, and the most important thing is that they gave my confidence back to me. I was an accountant back in China, and I have an accountant’s certification, but I could not find a good job that could maximize the benefits of my education. From this job, I find my value as present in society again, and it helps me know how my career has developed in the future. it gave me a stable job with a daily routine that I can rely on.”

For most immigrants, English isn’t a first language. Sun says that makes it particularly hard for immigrant women to find jobs.

“Women move here with their families, but they lack confidence in the job market,” Sun says. “A lot of them choose to stay home and become housewives, taking care of kids. Some women get lost in their careers because they’ve lost the connection with the rest of the world. I see many of them want to work, but they don’t even know where to search for jobs, women with PhD or master’s and a lot of them find it difficult to talk with people here because their English is not very good.”

Sun relied on the ISANS website for employment searches and webinars on how to communicate and acclimate to living in Halifax.

“I like ISANS because they offer educational sessions, then I can know friends, and I will be less lonely,” she says. “I connect with the community, and ISANS has many activities and programs to help people find employment and develop skills. ISANS is like a big mentor organization, and they help immigrants to achieve what they want.”

Jennifer Watts. Photo: Steve Smith

Heading into the pandemic, Jennifer Watts, CEO of ISANS, says that the organization could successfully adapt because it was already offering digital programs.

“We surprised ourselves,” Watts says. “People … were able to engage, learn, advance speaking from their newcomer perspective, advance their language skills, employment skills, or make connections to jobs through the virtual platforms we were using. Staff grew in confidence about their abilities to deliver the programs. It also offered some opportunities for some newcomers who maybe had difficulty coming into in-person because of child-care or transportation issues or maybe living in other parts of the province.”

Challenges immigrants face during the pandemic include access to technology and digital literacy. ISANS responded with digital literacy classes virtually and in-person. Additionally, the organization helped get tablets and other electronics for newcomers to connect with loved ones.

“It was tough for some of the people we work with because English is not their first language, so we spent a lot of time working to make sure they understood the information around how they protect themselves and their family,” Watts says. “We know that many people who were here may not have the support network that many of us would have, so making sure people felt connected. We spent a fair amount of time translating information into their first languages, phoning and keeping people connected.”

As the pandemic continues, immigrants face endless uncertainty. With travel restrictions, few flights, and consulate and border closures, it’s been hard for ISANS to keep up to date.

“It’s just been a huge uncertainty,” Watts says. “We’ve been learning as we go … There’s this constant lack of knowing where we’re going and yet trying to adapt, respond, fulfill our mandate, and keep people safe. We’re in such a unique and unknown situation.”

From her experience as a newcomer, Sun urges newcomers to reach out to their fellow Haligonians and make human connections.

“Don’t be afraid of making mistakes because you can correct them later always,” she says. “Every city, every place has its strengths and weaknesses. The good thing is to find the beauty of the city, find the beauty in the challenges, and have the confidence to overcome those difficulties.”

Correction: Due to a reporting mistake, an earlier version of this story misidentified the business school that Sun attended. The text above has been corrected. We regret the error.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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