Rural private sponsorship and access to culturally appropriate food in Canada

With resettlement to rural communities comes all the regular challenges of living in rural communities. The context of being a refugee presents additional challenges, one of which is access to culturally appropriate food.

Rural communities play a significant role in private refugee sponsorship in programs across the world. There are few specific numbers available, but studies indicate that small and rural communities are becoming increasingly more involved in private sponsorship. In some areas, small communities have even overtaken larger cities in refugee sponsorship; for example, in France, the majority of refugees sponsored through the Humanitarian Corridors program are hosted in small-sized, rural towns.

In Canada, private sponsorship in rural communities is growing, and has been described positively. Strong community networks and effective use of the high social capital of sponsors have created overall positive experiences for sponsored refugees. However, with resettlement to rural communities comes all the regular challenges of living in rural communities, such as distance from healthcare and social services, lack of public transit, lack of affordable housing, and lower access to the Internet. The context of being a refugee presents additional challenges, one of which is access to culturally appropriate food.

Access to culturally appropriate food is connected to elements of the human right to food. The OHCHR Fact Sheet on the right to adequate food specifies a requirement for safety and cultural acceptability of food within the human right to food. While “culturally appropriate” and “culturally acceptable” could be interpreted as having slightly different meanings, it is nonetheless clear that in order for the human right to food to have been met, access to food which is consistent with cultural values and norms is required. Additionally, it has been shown that a maintained connection to cultural foods can slow or help to avoid the overall decline of health experienced by immigrants in the years after their arrival in Canada (known as the “healthy immigrant effect”). Availability of culturally appropriate food is, therefore, positively associated with the physical and mental wellbeing of immigrants, as well as being a direct requirement of the human right to food.

However, this requirement is often not met. Since their income is often limited to insufficient social benefits or part-time employment, it is not uncommon for refugees to struggle with providing food for themselves and their families. While private sponsorship programming has been shown to mitigate this insufficiency, since private sponsors in Canada are responsible for providing full financial support for sponsored refugees during their first year, this is not always the case. IRCC’s 2019 outcomes report on the Syrian program indicated that many Syrians struggled with food security and relied on food banks, with 23% of Syrians reporting that they sometimes or often did have enough food and had no money to buy more, and 43% reporting having used a food bank more than twice. Although the IRCC report does not consistently differentiate between privately sponsored refugees (PSRs) and other types of refugees, these numbers can be assumed to include PSRs to some extent. Indeed, near the beginning of the large-scale admission of Syrian refugees to Canada in 2016, food banks in Toronto reported a significant increase in the use of their services. The executive director of Daily Bread, Gail Nyberg, commented that while she had expected to see some government-assisted refugees, she was surprised by the large number of PSRs who were also using the food bank. However, food banks often fail to meet the specific religious and cultural food needs of refugees, which can deter refugees from attending them.

In rural communities, the distance from urban centres brings a different type of difficulty; even if refugees do have financial access to food through the assistance of their sponsors, they often do not have easy access to culturally appropriate food. A case study of five rural communities in Manitoba where refugees had been resettled found that lack of food that met the newcomers’ religious needs was one of the largest rural resettlement challenges. Similarly, in a survey of four rural communities hosting PSRs across Canada, the most commonly mentioned challenge, apart from a language barrier, was access to transportation. A lack of other Arabs or Muslims in the community meant that most Muslim refugee families had to drive (or be driven, in many cases) to the city to obtain ethnic foods and access religious and cultural services.

Members of rural communities rely heavily on owning their own vehicles, as it is often the only consistent method of transportation available in remote areas. For PSRs who did not own their own vehicles, this meant relying on sponsors to coordinate drivers, sometimes requiring multiple drivers or even a bus rental for larger families, for grocery trips or appointments in the city. Sponsor groups in rural communities put extra effort towards helping adult PSRs get their driver’s licenses quickly, as well as helping them find and purchase their own cars.

Similar struggles have been expressed elsewhere in the world. In the UK, for example, one of the major identified problems for sponsored refugees living in rural communities was the problem of mobility and a lack of access to culturally appropriate foods such as halal meat.

One creative solution identified by the cross-Canadian study was asking the local grocery to bring in specific foods. This could be a viable option for rural communities, where strong social ties and an enhanced sense of community responsibility could act as motivators for grocery store owners to expand their inventory with requested foods.

Access to culturally appropriate food is necessary for new migrants but can be challenging, whether they are located in urban or rural settings, albeit for different reasons. Private sponsorship in urban areas may allow PSRs to afford the culturally appropriate food they require to thrive, but that is not always the case. Private sponsorship in rural areas presents the additional hurdle of distance from grocery stores where cultural foods are available. While this can also be mitigated by sponsor support, transitioning out of the PSR program after the one-year period can create additional difficulties for families who can no longer rely on their sponsors’ support. This was especially evident during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, where many families transitioning out of the program had lost the safety net of their sponsors while simultaneously facing under- or unemployment due to widespread shutdowns. Creative solutions are needed to ensure that PSRs in both rural and urban communities continue to have access to culturally appropriate foods throughout and after the term of their sponsorship.

The views expressed are those of the author/s, and are not attributable to the host organisations of the Resettlement.Plus website.

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