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GiveLife.ca

    

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FAMILY TIES
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To start new lives in Canada, Filipino parents such as Rina Romanos, above, are at the mercy of Kafkaesque and ever-changing policies that often separate them from their children for years - and even for the kids who make it, like her son Ricky, the reunion isn't always the happy ending they hope for
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By DOUG SAUNDERS
  
  

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Saturday, June 16, 2018 – Page O1

SURREY, B.C. -- International affairs columnist for The Globe and Mail s classes draw to an end A this month, most high schools are a giddy mix of excitement and impatience.

Among some clusters of students who hang out in the hallways and open-air library of Guildford Park Secondary School in suburban Surrey, B.C., you find a rather different mood, anxious and almost mournful.

For many of these FilipinoCanadian teenagers, the days leading up to school holidays are often a difficult time, they and their teachers say. They don't want to leave the school. The rest of the year, these kids linger long after classes have ended, staying together in the library, chatting with one another and their social-media friends across the ocean, often until the doors are locked at 10 p.m. The rented rooms and tiny apartments many of them live in, and the mothers they rarely see, don't feel like real life. The school does.

"The holidays are so hard for these kids - they don't like being away from the school," says Kristin Dorey, an English teacher who works closely with these students (Filipinos are about a fifth of the school's 2,000 students) in an after-school peermentoring program, and who has long encouraged them to record their experiences in journals.

"The school is comfort and security, they have access to food and each other. The holidays are rough. They don't feel at home anywhere but here."

These teenagers, and their unique emotional traumas and challenges, are part of a far larger generation of young FilipinoCanadians, likely numbering in the tens of thousands and populating every major city, whose family lives have been ripped in two and held in limbo as a result of a serious flaw in Canada's immigration policies.

Many of them have spent most of their lives without seeing their parents more than once or twice - and then have suddenly been plunged into a family life far more difficult than they'd grown up expecting.

Most of these kids' parents (more often than not mothers) had left their small children in the Philippines to come to Canada on longterm work visas - most commonly on what was formerly known as the Live-In Caregiver Visa.

Those visas carried a guarantee of eventual pathways to permanent residence and family reunification. But a set of confusing changes to the system, and serious flaws in Canada's credential-recognition procedures, mean that thousands of these Filipino parents every year have their children denied access to Canada.

Many are forced to wait many years, often more than a decade, before they're able to jump through the hoops necessary to bring their kids over. The result can easily mean a decade of separation.

This is not a marginal problem - the Philippines is, most years, the largest source of immigrants to Canada; more than 40,000 Filipinos settled here last year, and there are now almost a million Filipino-Canadians. But their situation is not noticed, because Filipinos tend to be spread out across major cities (this section of Surrey, along with a neighbourhood along Toronto's northern border, are exceptions).

"When I first landed here, I cried myself to sleep for a week," writes Paolo, a Grade 12 student who moved to Canada just as he was entering middle school (and adolescence), after being raised for a decade and a half by his grandparents, his father and his extended family in the Philippines. Now, it's just him and his mom. "Knowing that I did not get to see them every day was hurtful ... It is a completely different environment without them."

To understand how Canada keeps families apart, listen to Rina Ramanos. She came to British Columbia from the southern Philippine island of Mindinao in August of 2014. She had earned a college diploma in nursing in the Philippines, and she was joining a circle of five friends from her nursing school who'd come to Canada two years earlier, in hopes of eventually pursing a career at a medical institution.

There were a couple good reasons to come to Canada - and the biggest was that there was a good chance of eventually bringing over her son Ricky, who was born in 2005. (Like many Filipino mothers who work internationally, she lives apart from her husband; marital breakup and estrangement are frequently the result of these work arrangements, although divorce is illegal in the Philippines.)

She'd already worked for four years in Saudi Arabia and two in Hong Kong, neither of which offered any pathway to residency or family reunification for Filipino workers - only Canada did. And Canada has big shortages of nursing and medical workers.

Like many educated Filipinos, however, she knew that her only chance of gaining entry to Canada was to work at least two years as a caregiver or nanny, under what was then known as the LiveIn Caregiver Visa (a high proportion of Filipina domestic workers in Canada have postsecondary educations). At that point, Canada guaranteed permanent residency (the first step on the pathway to citizenship) to people who'd completed two full years of work during the four years of the visa. That would give her time, she assumed, to upgrade her nursing credentials to Canadian standards and bring her son over.

Shortly after Ms. Ramanos arrived, Canada got rid of the LiveIn Caregiver visa. The reasons for this change were good - the visa left workers dependent on the family who'd hired them, leaving them open to abuse and exploitation. It was to be replaced with a two-year temporary work visa that also offered various pathways to permanent residency - at least in theory.

Ms. Ramanos was luckier than some: Grandfathered on the old visa, she completed her two years of work, sending two-thirds of her $1,500 per month back to her town, and got permanent residency. After another year of waiting, she was able to sponsor Ricky's immigration in 2017, when he was 12. She moved into a low-rent apartment (her live-in employer offered to let her stay with her son, but she felt that the huge house in the middle of nowhere would leave Ricky alone and isolated). He was overjoyed to see his mother - they'd had only a few visits over a decade - and fell in love with his school and its playing fields.

But Ricky soon found that life was not what he had expected.

Ms. Ramanos is forced to keep working as a caregiver as she struggles to get the year of community college she needs to get her nursing permit. To try to save the tuition fees (more than $1,000 a month for foreign students), she has added a night job at Tim Hortons to her all-day caregiver duties.

When I met Rina and Ricky, a bus ride from their house at the Surrey library, they were still visibly delighted to be with each other after so many years - but both lamented that they rarely are actually together. "I like being here, but it's hard that my friends are over there and my mom isn't around very much - it's really different," he says. He knows her as someone who is always headed out to her next job.

"Why do you keep running all the time?" he asked his mother.

"To jobs, to the bus, to the mall."

She nodded in agreement, but told him: "In the Philippines I could die working and I still couldn't send you to a good school. Here, it is possible. They were so, so poor there."

She was comparatively lucky: Getting her son over only took a year. Thousands of other Filipinos who arrived before the visa system changed in 2014 are waiting under bureaucratic delays that sometimes mean they don't see their children for four to six years after they arrive in Canada.

They often discover once they've spent months getting their kids' immigration documents that they require a medical certificate in the Philippines, which can take a year to obtain; by the time they have it, their immigration documents have expired and they have to apply for a new medical certificate - a cycle that can repeat itself over several years.

For Filipino immigrants who arrived after November, 2014, things are even tougher. The new two-year work visas only offer a possibility, not a guarantee, of permanent residency. That possibility is far from certain, with ever-changing requirements for education and language credentials, whose assessment is farmed out to private companies of varying quality.

Worse, many Filipinos discover that they won't know if they qualify for permanent residence, or what changes they'll need in order to apply, until the two years of work is finished - at which point you are expected to leave the country.

"We're in a kind of weird situation right now where the legal landscape is a mess," says Deanna Okun-Nachoff, a Vancouver immigration lawyer who spent years running a non-profit agency whose clients were Filipina caregivers.

"Hurdle No. 1 is that the first day you qualify to apply for permanent residence is the day your work permit expires - so you're legally supposed to leave the country before you can get your application through. And hurdle No. 2 is they had language and educational requirements that weren't there when you applied for your work permit in the first place."

That's proving a huge barrier to reunifying these families. Canada's immigration system generally requires postsecondary education and English or French fluency - something people such as Ms. Ramanos assume they have, as Filipinos tend to be easily conversant in English (their country was an American colony). And most Filipino immigrants today have postsecondary education.

So they assume, with good reason, that getting permanent residence is just a matter of waiting and applying.

But they very often are shocked to be told, on the day their work permit expires, that they don't really have the qualifications. Because high-school graduates in the Philippines only have 10 years of education (versus 12 in Canada), the first two years of university are only counted by Canadian officials as high school years. And the English-fluency test (which can only be taken after this last day) has rigorous standards that often require additional fluency training even for comfortable speakers.

"They come, they're university educated and they speak the language and they think they're okay," Ms. Okun-Nachoff says.

"Then they get the work permit, they get their two years of work experience, and then at the end of this process they have this kind of awakening. They're told, 'We consider your Filipino twoyear degree equivalent to Canadian high school, not to one year of postsecondary.' Then, on their minimum wage, they have to pay international student fees [typically $20,000 to $30,000] to get one year of postsecondary education. And to boot, there's this other rule that says if you're studying full-time, we won't give you credit for your work experience.

You're kind of damned if you do and damned if you don't."

According to Canadian immigration data tabulated by Philip Kelly, a York University professor of geography who specializes in Philippine migration patterns, of the more than 7,000 people who are in Canada each year on caregiver visas, only about 500 to 600 each year have been able, in recent years, to make the transition to permanent residence. (Both numbers have plummeted in the past year, probably because Filipino workers know that the current visa system is set to expire in 2019, and are waiting for a less frustrating pathway.) As of the beginning of 2018, there was a backlog of more than 30,000 Caregiver Visa holders awaiting a decision on permanent residence.

Canada's immigration officials often use this dilemma as a reason to refuse admission of children - if the parents' qualifications haven't been met, why should family-reunification take place? Ms. Okun-Nachoff says the great majority of Filipina immigrants she has dealt with since 2014 have failed to get their children sponsored.

And even after meeting the qualifications and becoming permanent residents, Filipino workers discover that huge backlogs in the processing system mean it can take many years before children can come - this year, the backlog in family-reunification visas for caregivers is more than 20,000. Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen pledged last year to reduce the backlog to zero by the end of 2018, but it still means Filipino families are enduring delays of many years.

"The real tragedy comes with the relationship with the children," Ms. Okun-Nachoff says, "because it takes so many years,

and those relationships have to endure in some way."

So the kids of Guildford Park are among the lucky ones - their mothers have jumped through a Kafka-esque sequence of bureaucratic hoops, and often waited a decade, to get their kids over. But those kids are discovering that their parents are often not around, and are barely surviving on multiple jobs, and have other emotional lives. No wonder they prefer the school-library company of one another, and the lush overseas life their friends post about on their smartphones.

To some extent, the challenges they face are those of most kids who immigrate as teenagers - but with added complications. The Guildford Park Filipinos, and kids in similar positions in Winnipeg and Toronto and Halifax, find themselves trying to adapt simultaneously to a very different culture and climate, to the new stresses and difficulties of highschool life and of adolescence, to the loss of the tight-knit households that cared for them, and to a new household that's nothing like what they thought it would be. No wonder they want to stick around the school.

This is not a story of failed integration - not in the usual sense.

The Filipino kids arrive fairly fluent in English and easily adapt to Canadian customs. They tend to breeze through the integration tests newcomers take at the school's welcome centre. Their mothers place high expectations on their kids. So they generally stay in school, though their academic results are, on average, below those of most kids - in good part because their lives have been split between two countries.

"They seem okay," Ms. Dorey says. "They have a culture of not complaining. But their journal entries give it away."

She began getting her Grade 9 English students to chronicle their personal lives in journals in 2011, and soon noticed the extraordinarily difficult emotional lives of the Filipino students.

Around the same time, she got to know a lot of them more closely through the peer-mentoring program she ran.

"Before, I was thinking I wanted this life, these opportunities and freedom," Grade 12 student Carmella writes in her journal.

She describes, in detail, the freedom she enjoys in Canada - she can cut her hair short and have a girlfriend - "but I'm not that happy, because every day feels like nothing. I don't have anyone to talk to - everyone's busy working - but in the Philippines, I always had someone to talk to, I would go to my neighbours' house and talk to them the whole day, and it's not boring, it's fun, and I feel like I have a purpose every day, even if I don't have money to buy food."

The experience of having been kept from their parents for such an unusually long time leaves them disjointed and unsure of themselves - and this sometimes reflects in school results, in psychological distress and in their ability to thrive.

"A lot of them have one foot back in the Philippines and one foot here. There's a sense of serious guilt for living here - they have left their friends behind and they get to live in Canada," Ms.

Dorey says. "And they have a huge sense of responsibility - a duty to be successful here," because their far poorer Filipino relatives are counting on their financial support.

A lot of these kids face even deeper shocks. If their mothers work as live-in caregivers for children, seniors or severely disabled people, they have often become an integral part of a de facto family. Canadians are not in the habit of referring to their domestic servants as "servants" - they often prefer to refer to them as family members, and sometimes treat them as if they were. The emotional bonds become tight.

And when the caregivers' actual children finally move in after more than a decade apart, they face two shocks: First, discovering that their mother is not the wealthy and generous benefactor she was said to be in the village; second, learning that she's rarely around, often because she's with kids who've spent far longer knowing her love.

"There's a process that's a lot like grief - leaving someone behind," says Cynthia Adams, Guildford Park's principal.

"There's the difficult process of being reunited with their parents because they're raised by different people - so have become used to different parenting styles.

They were used to living very independently. And not seeing the hardship and poverty around them makes them feel guilt and sadness."

Later this year, the federal government will begin reviewing the caregiver-visa system. It is to be replaced, eliminated or folded into some other immigration category before it expires in 2019. It's an opportunity for Ottawa to end a grotesque flaw in our immigration system, one that left Canada's largest immigrant group struggling to hold together families that, in the case of other immigrants, would have been able to move to Canada together. Even as we worry about the prospect of single, unaccompanied people crossing the border into Canada, our policies are turning intact families into atomized individuals, divided by an ocean.

The Filipino kids, in their journals, show an admirable ability to cope and adapt, and an optimism that rises above their situation.

Francesca, one of the first of Ms.

Dorey's students to write a journal, says that staying late at night in the school library was a way to build a third family to substitute for the two others that had been denied her by Canadian policy.

"Growing up without an extended family meant that I had to recreate my own meaning of family here in Canada. I'm lucky today to be able to call certain people 'family' even though I am not related to them by blood," she says.

Many of these students have triumphed over extraordinary emotional separation - a separation that was an unnecessary side-effect of bureaucratic disorder.

Associated Graphic

PHOTOGRAPHY BY DARRYL DYCK

DARRYL DYCK


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