Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A foreign currency

Adjusting to a new country and culture is tough enough for many newcomers to Canada; then there's our financial system

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Never mind the mosquitoes and bitingly cold winters. They're a relatively minor inconvenience for many newcomers to Winnipeg.

Just ask Dhirta Subedi, a refugee who came to Canada four years ago.

"Comparing the life in a refugee camp and here in Canada, it's a big difference. Life in the refugee camp is not safe," says the newcomer to this country.

Subedi's family is from Bhutan, a small, landlocked country sandwiched between India and China. But she has spent the majority of her life in a refugee camp in Nepal.

Her family were farmers, and they fled political strife and violence in their homeland in 1992 when she was only two years old.

In the camp, they languished for 18 years until they took advantage of a program that would help Bhutanese refugees find asylum in developed nations such as Australia and the U.S.

Her family chose Canada.

"We felt that it was a very safe and peaceful country."

They settled in Winnipeg, and the minute they landed, they were already indebted. Their debts extend beyond gratitude to Canada for having been granted asylum. They also owed the federal government more than $2,000 per family member for the cost of the flights.

For Subedi, who still owes the government more than $5,000, it's a financial cost she is more than happy to pay.

"It's not a burden, because I'm working and paying," says the settlement assistance counsellor at the Welcome Place, run by the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council.

But others are not so fortunate, she adds.

"It can be difficult for them to pay back the loan, because many of them are living off government assistance."

The federal loan is just one of many possible financial challenges newcomers face when first arriving in Canada. Not only are many learning a new language, community and culture, many are faced with a complex financial system that is entirely alien to their economic experiences in their homelands.

Grace Eidse, executive director of Altered Minds Inc., says overcoming the obstacles to becoming established economically in Canada is among the greatest challenges immigrants face besides the language barrier.

"It's a huge challenge for everyone, except those who have dealt with a lot of money matters overseas, such as entrepreneurs and the business class," says Eidse, whose organization provides a mandatory, government-funded orientation class for newcomers to the city.

"For refugees and even your average middle-class immigrant, they don't realize how expensive it is to live here."

The fact that refugees start out thousands of dollars in debt -- to the government -- is especially galling, she adds.

"They're triple traumatized. They're traumatized in their home country, then in their country of refuge and then in their country of asylum by starting off in debt," she says. "No Canadians start off in their own lives with personal debt."

It's a longstanding federal policy, one refugee advocacy groups have been lobbying the feds for years to eliminate, she says.

"On social assistance-type level of income, they have to start repaying the loan within a month."

Subedi says after three years, refugees must also pay interest on the debt. Because so many must subsist for a long time on social assistance from the federal government and then the province, they struggle to pay off the debt.

Many want to find work right away, but they face many obstacles, from getting proper ID to having transferable work experience.

"The most significant challenge is language," she says.

"Many of the people from refugee camps are illiterate, so they have to learn English here, and it's very difficult for them."

The Welcome Place offers newcomers help adapting, including providing English-language resources. Its workers also guide new Canadians through the many difficult financial decisions they face almost immediately after arriving here, including finding a place to live.

Finding an affordable rental is difficult.

"If you don't have the money to pay for the place you want to be in, you end up being in an unsafe environment renting from slumlords," Eidse says.

Organizations such as New Journey Housing help newcomers find affordable housing, providing them with much-needed budgeting skills and consumer awareness so they don't rent accommodations that charge more than they can afford.

This is essential, Subedi says, because many are subsisting on about $600 a month in government assistance. Most pool their money as a family to afford a place to live and other necessities such as food.

Banking is also a new experience for many, particularly for refugees.

"For me, it's very new," she says. "I had never seen a bank card before."

Part of orientation at The Welcome Place involves taking clients to the bank to set up accounts and get them a bank card.

 

Most are a long way off from obtaining another kind of plastic -- the credit card -- but those with assets should apply for a secured credit card as soon as they can, says Stephen Menon, associate vice-president of credit cards at TD in Toronto.

"That way, they can establish a credit history as soon as they arrive."

All newcomers, even those with assets and a good credit history in their homeland, have to build their credit rating from scratch in Canada.

Canadian credit bureaus don't have access to international credit histories, even for the U.S, Menon says.

While secured credit cards help build a credit rating, they hold more in common with debit cards.

For every dollar of security clients can offer, they receive a dollar of credit.

"Except with a debit card, you don't establish a credit history like you would with a secure card," he says. "It (a secured credit card) shows to Canadian lenders how much debt you're able to carry responsibly."

Newcomers with little familiarity with banking, however, are likely better off learning the basics of financial literacy before seeking credit, Eidse says.

Because our system is often very different from the one they're used to in their country of origin, newcomers can be at a higher risk of making uninformed choices, such as borrowing from payday lenders or even falling for financial scams.

The ENTRY Program at Altered Minds provides them with the basics of finance, including the pitfalls of payday loans, how to avoid financial scams, how to budget and learning their rights as consumers.

"We go over all the angles, like paycheques and deductions and how to file income tax and the types of benefits they can apply for."

Adjusting to a financial system that even born-and-bred Canadians struggle with can take years.

Subedi says she is still learning the ropes of managing money. It was something she never had to worry about in a refugee camp.

"We didn't have any money there."

Yet all the challenges she has faced assimilating to our money culture have been worth the effort.

After all, worrying about money is much less stressful than fearing for one's safety.

"Here is safe, and people feel happy," she says. "I'm very proud to be in Canada."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 10, 2013 B10

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