Skip to main contentPasser au contenu principal

Navigating a financial maze as an Arab newcomer to Canada

8 September 2021
Author: Wendy Abbott-Serroul
As the COVID-19  pandemic continues to be part of our lives, financial empowerment frontline workers continue to traverse the complex world that COVID-19 has created for many Canadians living on low incomes. Supporting people to improve their financial situations is more important than ever, and understanding their backgrounds and varying perspectives is often the key to building trust and supporting them up to succeed. This is especially true when serving newcomers.  

The Working Centre, through its Financial Empowerment and Problem Solving Program (FEPS), has continued to serve the high needs of people who are navigating benefits challenges, income tax returns, and financial problem solving, many who are newcomers to Canada. The demand for help is high and they continue to provide in-person and remote supports  while the challenges of COVID-19 continue to make things more difficult for the people they serve. Understanding income support issues, finding work in a complex labour market, the lack of other services open at this time, and the loneliness and dislocation faced by so many. Not to mention the long wait times on the phones while they support problem-solving all while also social distancing. Language barriers and cultural nuances are additional challenges, which inhibit the ability to have clear and thoughtful conversations and interactions.

Coming to Canada is complex enough, with a new system of finances, benefits, supports and structures. Many women, as immigrants, find themselves with legal, financial and security issues and do not know what supports are available.

When women find themselves left behind by their husbands, often with a young child to support they face an overwhelming, frightening and mysterious financial frontier. 

If they are fortunate, some women have Permanent Resident status, which allows them to claim the Child Tax Credit. Many are living on this as their main source of income which is often unfeasible given the cost of housing. This situation is even more difficult for women who are Refugee Claimants or who have temporary status as they aren’t able to receive the credit at all. Add to these challenges the language barriers, and the cultural shifts that are being experienced and learned every day.

In many cases, women think that the answer is to find a job, but then face the issues of securing safe and affordable child care, and often the work does not produce enough income to pay basic costs. All told, unless they find an ally or supports that help to sort out these many complex realities, they cannot achieve financial empowerment, and do not have access to the next steps in their security and independence.

Nimaa’s story

Nimaa*, a single mother and newcomer to Canada, helps shed light on the unique financial challenges she experienced as an Arab woman. 

As an Arab woman, and newcomer to Canada, Nimaa, became separated from her abusive husband and was facing difficulties managing as a single mother. Nimaa’s husband had left their apartment and asked for his name to be removed from the lease. This left her responsible to pay all the rent from her income from her part-time, minimum wage job at a grocery store. This was her only source of income aside from her Child Tax Credit as her husband was not paying her child or spousal support.

Nimaa visited to The Working Centre with a tremendous amount of anxiety surrounding her circumstances and her finances in particular. She had taken her young daughter out of daycare due to a COVID-19 case and as a result, needed both herself and her daughter to be tested. She was then required to stay home from work until the required 14 days of self-isolation was over.

Self-isolating at home meant that Nimaa would not be paid for two weeks. Understandably, she was panicking because she was very short on money. At this point, the end of the month was only a couple of days away, and to complicate matters further, her Canada Child Benefit (CCB) payment for the month was deposited to her husband’s account which she did not have access to. It was clear to the case worker how stressful and difficult it had been for Nimaa to go through all of this alone without community and family support, while having a young daughter to care for as well. 

A FEPS worker quickly helped Nimaa to apply for Employment Insurance (EI) which gave her a secure income source for the time she was away from work. She was surprised that having only 138 hours from her part-time job qualified her for EI, and was incredibly grateful. 

After several brainstorming meetings to help Nimaa navigate other benefits or income supports that might help her to survive, the support provided by the FEPS worker helped Nimaa to feel that she wasn’t alone. The knowledge, sensitivity and thoroughness that was demonstrated proved vital to Nimaa who teared up in happiness.

As an Arab newcomer, Nimaa wasn’t aware that completing her income taxes was another way to get additional benefits and tax credits she was eligible for. Helping her file her 2020 taxes helped Nimaa access $450 for the Climate Action Incentive, $613 of GST, $1,100 through the Ontario Trillium Benefit (OTB) and $7,596 of CCB for the year as well as two additional payments of young child supplements that brought the amount for CCB to $933 for the months of July and October. 

Additionally, the FEPS worker also applied for the Ontario COVID-19 Child Benefit and secured $400 for her. Nimaa's previous application for the Ontario support for learners was also pending as they were waiting for Nimaa's action on correcting some errors that she was not able to do alone due to her language barrier as an Arabic speaker. A FEPS worker was able to connect Nimaa with the benefit program and problem solve the outstanding pieces with interpretation help. This gave her another $200 in income.

Conversations with Nimaa have continued, and together The Working Centre is helping her to navigate options for rent assistance due to concern that her landlord might evict her because she’s unable to pay her rent. 

Nimaa was also connected with rent assistance to get temporary support. Given her ongoing situation, The Working Centre helped Nimaa navigate the rent supplement process as well as reach out to the Region of Waterloo to learn more about the process of getting connected with the program. 

While discussing community housing as an option, Nimaa learned that she is entitled to Special Priority Status for Domestic Violence, which means she would get to the top of the housing list. 

In the face of working through her finances, Nimaa shared that her young daughter has experienced some serious developmental issues. The application for a disability child tax certificate was another support The Working Centre was able to help her with. This will give Nimaa an additional $200 with her monthly CCB amount once the application is approved. 

Applications for Healthy Smile and the Ontario Trillium Drug Benefit Program (OTDBP) were submitted for Nimaa which was a huge relief given that she has no insurance coverage.  

It has been two months since Nimaa first reached out to The Working Centre and, they are now at a point where a very challenging and stressful time for her is smoothly coming to an end. Nimaa is feeling much better now. She is back at work but still eligible for EI which gives her another $1,000 on top of what she earns from employment. Nimaa learned recently that she has been approved for a Disability Tax Credit for her child and will receive a lump sum payment from CCB back dated to 2017, a generous amount of money to give her some stability at this difficult time.  She is overwhelmingly excited by this success. Not to mention, as we share this story Nimaa has learned she has now been accepted into community housing.

Nimaa is now following a budgeting plan which her FEPs worker  helped her build to manage her monthly bills. She is happy she she now has the skills to manage her bank account, read her pay-stubs, and take charge of her finances, something that felt so beyond her control previously. Nimaa now feels empowered that she can be a role model for her daughter as an Arab woman successfully navigating her financial world.

Additional difficulties  families and individuals face such as language, cultural and gender barriers, often add stress and strain on their financial lives. Still, not all experiences in Canada are equal. The experiences of racialized communities through this pandemic cannot all be viewed through the same lens. In particular, the Canadian Arab Institute, reported through Statistics Canada data (2020) that the Arab visible minority population has the highest unemployment rate at 13.5 per cent; and of the visible minority populations, the Arab visible minority population has the third lowest median employment income. Almost 25 per cent of the Arab visible minority population is in the under $10,000 income group; this is a higher portion of the population than most other visible minority population groups1. Women among these groups are even harder hit when it comes to dealing with their financial lives. Middle Eastern women often function as a unit with their husbands and thus do not have a separate financial/independent identity and have often not had access to further education before coming to Canada. 

The Working Centre, and similar organizations, are dealing head-on with the complex realities of the people they serve. Stories like Nimaa’s are far too common.  Without the keen understanding and sensitivity displayed by her FEPS worker and their commitment to exploring every avenue of support, one might wonder what would have happened to Niima and her daughter?

*Name has been changed to protect privacy
** Featured photo is from Istock 

The Working Centre
The Working Centre is a non-profit organization established in the spring of 1982 as a response to unemployment and poverty in downtown Kitchener. The Working Centre’s main projects give people access to tools to create their own work combined with continuous ways of learning and co-operating. To learn more about The Working Centre, please visit: The Working Centre is a part of the Financial Empowerment Champions program helping Ontarians living on low incomes to improve their financial situation by accessing government income transfers and building their capacity for financial security.



Wendy Abbott-Serroul is the Senior Marketing and Communications Officer at Prosper Canada. She works closely with the entire organization to identify communications needs and supports the efforts to increase awareness and the profile of Prosper Canada.

Blog post currently doesn't have any comments.
 Security code