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The Same Boat: How people in Canada are connecting with loved ones abroad

Yuanyuan Zhou has cared for her baby Vincent alone since he was born in June 2020. During the pandemic, she's been separated from her parents and her seven-year-old son Damello, who remain in China.

Yuanyuan Zhou has cared for her baby Vincent alone since he was born in June 2020. During the pandemic, she's been separated from her parents and her seven-year-old son Damello, who remain in China.

Photo: CBC/Francis Ferland

RCI

While we’re experiencing the same pandemic, not all experiences have been equal

The pandemic has taken a huge toll on a lot of Canadians. Many have struggled with the mental health effects of isolation and loneliness. 

It's been especially difficult for those with loved ones abroad — who remain separated from close family and friends by ongoing travel restrictions.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Radio special The Same Boat explores how people are confronting that barrier by finding other ways to connect and support their friends and family beyond our borders.

CBC producers Jennifer Chen and Idil Mussa heard over and over that people are finding strength in each other, even at a great distance.

Here's a look at some of their stories.

Mother of newborn isolated from family and community

Yuanyuan Zhou gave birth to her baby Vincent in Ottawa last June. Her initial plan was to travel to Shandong, China afterwards to spend happy time with her parents, who could also help look after the baby.

But without the ability to travel, visiting is no longer an option.

Instead, like many people right now, they are connecting by video chat. My parents really want to care for the baby and to say some words to him, but they cannot, she said.

Zhou came to Ottawa to study early childhood education at Algonquin College. Her husband was visiting early last year when the pandemic closed Canada's borders. She was pregnant and couldn't work, and her husband didn't have a work permit either.

By mid-March, it was evident he was going to be sticking around, and they'd need to figure out an alternative plan.

Every plan was destroyed, because of COVID-19, Zhou said. 

Traditionally in China, new mothers stay home for the first month to ensure the health of the mother and newborn.

The newborn's grandparents visit to help cook, clean and care for the family, and the mother is treated like a queen, said Hongyan Han, an early childhood development worker at the Somerset West Community Health Centre in Ottawa. 

It's a practice observed by many families today. But without this kind of support, it can be severely isolating and challenging for new moms.

It's like a Chinese tradition that we're trying to help ourselves and we're sometimes reluctant to or feel a little bit ashamed to ask for help from the others, Han explained.

Zhou and her husband spent as little money as possible and they didn't ask for outside help. A year later, he's working, and she looks after the baby while studying.

The couple's seven-year-old son Damello also lives with her parents in China. They're helping look after him while she finishes her studies.

She admits it's been difficult, but their twice-daily video chats give her hope.

Every time my seven-year-old son says to me, I miss you, it really gives me power, she said. The feeling of [being] a mom is different from any others.

Remittances remain a lifeline during pandemic

Abdul Awad left Somalia more than 20 years ago and came to Canada as a refugee. Now living in Fort McMurray, he regularly sends money back home to friends and family to support them.

Abdul Awad left Somalia more than 20 years ago and came to Canada as a refugee. Now living in Fort McMurray, he regularly sends money back home to friends and family to support them.

Photo: Submitted by Abdul Awad

Abdul Awad came to Canada from Somalia more than 20 years ago as a refugee. He studied agriculture back home, but he's built a career for himself in Alberta's oil and gas industry in Fort McMurray.

Awad regularly sends money to family and close friends in Somalia to help support them, but it's become more difficult during the pandemic. Awad said his hours have been cut drastically and he's not alone.

In the early days, you know, a couple of years ago, it was good, said Awad. But now, because of the oil prices and the COVID-19 and all that, hours are not the same. A lot of people lost their jobs. A lot of companies are not hiring.

Still, Awad remains committed to sending money to loved ones. 

Growing up in Somalia, I remember there were no … social programs [or] government agencies, he said.

People are left alone to fend for themselves. They have nowhere to go. So they call us — those friends, family members who are here or elsewhere, and the diaspora for help.

Awad said many family members helped him financially when he was younger so that he could afford to go to school and get an education. He said he hasn't forgotten that support, and sending money now is his way of continuing that tradition of giving. 

Despite that, he admits it can be challenging when people think you have more than you actually do.

The perception of Canada or Western countries by the Somalis back home is that you've got everything. You got a lot of money. Money grows on trees and you can send any money, any time, any amount of money they need. And whether you have enough or not, you are obligated to help out, he said.

More stories, more connections

Here are some of the other people and stories featured in The Same Boat:

In Edmonton, Elijah Konguavi is dreaming of the day when he can take his children back to his family farm in Namibia. He comes from a line of cattle herders and is eager for his one-year-old son to experience what it's like to be among the cattle, the sheep and the goats. 

Christine Ajok left family members behind when she came to Saskatoon as a refugee from South Sudan. She lost a sister in South Sudan and a brother in the United States during the pandemic, and when the local South Sudanese community couldn't come and help her grieve, she felt very alone. 

In 2020, Alex Morgan's grandmother in Jamaica had a stroke. Morgan has been sending money every couple of weeks from his home in Calgary. He talks to her over video chat almost daily, to hear her stories and remember the days when he was a child under her care.

When the pandemic struck, Toronto resident Ben Clitherow had to find a new way to connect with his nine-year-old nephews in London, England. They found it in the online video game Fortnite, and haven't looked back since.

The Same Boat was produced by Jennifer Chen and Idil Mussa.

Click on the image to listen the whole episode of The Same Boat.

Click on the image to listen the whole episode of The Same Boat.

Photo:  CBC

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