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‘Strive and thrive’

Sociology PhD student awarded for work on immigrant retention


By Chad Pelley

A Memorial student was recognized recently for her hands-on work in tackling the issue of immigrant retention in Atlantic Canada.

Foroogh Mohammadi is at right wearing a yellow blazer and white shirt and holds a pen and notepad while looking towards someone who is back on.
By interviewing Iranian immigrants throughout Atlantic Canada, Foroogh Mohammadi, at right, is documenting core causes of why N.L.’s rate of immigrant retention (51 per cent) is significantly below the national average (86 per cent).
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Sociology PhD student Foroogh Mohammadi was awarded a Senior Women Academic Administrators of Canada Graduate Student Award of Merit.

The award is given annually to women graduate students who have demonstrated outstanding leadership in the university or general community while maintaining exemplary academic records. It is valued at $4,000.

In 2021 the Institute of Social and Economic Research also awarded Ms. Mohammadi a doctoral fellowship in support of her doctoral project.

Seeing the problem

While Newfoundland and Labrador can attract new immigrants, it struggles to retain them: Stats Canada reports that 49 per cent of immigrants leave the province, compared to the Canadian average of 14 per cent.

Finding a solution to a problem requires knowing what, exactly, the issue is, and that’s precisely what  has been doing: travelling throughout Atlantic Canada and interviewing Iranian immigrants about their sense of home and belonging in their new city.

She also interviewed Iranians who have left Atlantic Canada to live in Ontario, so she can articulate why many immigrants decide to leave.

“Immigrants would like to feel they are equally integrated and their needs have been considered.” — Foroogh Mohammadi

As someone who has been enjoying “the uniqueness of the Newfoundland culture and the warmth of the people around me” enough to consider the province her second home, Ms. Mohammadi became curious to learn why so many international students and graduates tend to leave.

In developing her research project, she noticed how the scope of research on immigrants in the Atlantic region is limited when compared to bigger cities in Canada.

Three common barriers to immigrant retention that emerged from her work are detailed below.

A lack of socio-cultural connections

“Re-rooting in a new context is what immigrants hope for and yearn for,” she said, but adjusting to language barriers and cultural differences while integrating with a new society takes a considerable amount of time, if it even happens at all.

This feeling of isolation is amplified by the fact that most immigrants have no or very few family members or friends upon immigrating to an Atlantic Canadian town, and smaller communities tend to have less cultural diversity. This sense of alienation is heightened by a lack of access to familiar cultural amenities and socio-cultural places and events.

If a city or town looking to retain immigrants were to take the time to provide such spaces, it would create community ties that could greatly improve immigrants’ sense of community and quality of life, says Ms. Mohammadi.

“Specifically, designing and building more inclusive social spaces (outside of bars and restaurants) in the city helps various groups in the society to strengthen their sense of connectedness to the city,” she said. “In other words, immigrants would like to feel they are equally integrated, and their needs have been considered in providing services and planning the city.”

Ms. Mohammadi has also found that some of her participants feel city structures and public transit must better allow them to access such things easily and affordably.

Foroogh Mohammadi wearing a white and pale green outfit, with many windows in the background
Ms. Mohammadi came to Memorial from Iran to do her PhD in sociology. Upon noticing that many international students and graduates leave the province after receiving their degree she became curious to find out why.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Career limitations might be biggest barrier for retention

Overall, she says the most significant obstacle is job scarcity in the Atlantic region, and the limited capacity to advance careers.

“If there is no decent job relevant to their education, they prefer to leave in the hope of obtaining a job in bigger cities.”

Securing a good job in their desired career field is the most basic thing that the immigrants seek, she says and it affects their feeling of safety, productivity and satisfaction, which all influence a sense of belonging. She says another major obstacle for immigrant retention is the high cost of living.

Being left in status limbo

“The last and most important point that I would highlight … [is that] the bureaucratic process of obtaining a permanent resident status is unnecessarily prolonged, which not only depletes the immigrants’ energy and their motivations to strive and thrive, but also deprives society from the immigrants’ contribution in the Canadian social and economic context,” she said.

Specifically, she’s referring to the excessive wait time to become eligible to apply for permanent residence status and to receive the results within the Atlantic provinces.

These wait times disrupt an immigrant’s ability to quickly and easily secure a job, says Ms. Mohammadi. She also says survey participants have clearly stated that finding satisfactory employment is vital to a sense of home and belonging.

She says that were it not for wait times, some of her survey participants would have been happy to stay in the region.

One example from a participant sums the situation neatly.

“We are stuck in a vicious circle to find a job and apply for a permanent residency, which frustratingly takes several years for a highly skilled PhD student.”

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