Welcoming Encounters: What Does a Welcoming Community Look Like to Immigrant and Migrant Mothers?

By María José Yaxfraser
Halifax Harbour, Point Pleasant Park – An image that represents for me the long history of migration to and from Nova Scotia.

Welcoming Encounters is a qualitative doctoral research project that asks immigrant and migrant women what makes Halifax, Nova Scotia, a welcoming community for them as mothers.

Like other provinces in Atlantic Canada, declining fertility rates and emigration from Nova Scotia have been held responsible for the province’s recent economic decline and aging population. Although Canada receives about 250,000 immigrants annually, less than 2% declare Atlantic Canada as their intended destination. Of these, less than half tend to stay and about 90% settle in urban areas. As a result, over the past decade, attempts to attract, retain and integrate new immigrants have gained increased significance in policy and practice at Federal, Provincial and Municipal levels. Changes in infrastructure, programs and initiatives have been instituted by governments, the business sector, communities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to attract, promote and retain immigrants in smaller centres.

A Welcoming Community Initiative (WCI) was one strategy that became particularly appealing to immigration stakeholders across Canada in the early years of the 21st century to promote the retention of newcomers and to facilitate their settlement and economic and social integration.

The concept of a “welcoming community” was identified by the federal government, the Nova Scotia provincial government, academics and Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) as key to the successful integration of new immigrants. Its spatial dimension refers to a physical location in which newcomers feel valued and where their needs are served. It refers to a location that has the capacity to promote the inclusion of newcomers. Its discourse dimension refers to a community whose residents undertake actions that facilitate the integration of newcomers by making a collective effort to make individuals feel appreciated and included.

Promoting the need to create welcoming and inclusive communities for new migrants speaks to the recognition that Nova Scotia, predominantly a white and Anglophone community, has been characterized by a resistance to embrace the changes that come with an influx of immigrants from diverse countries around the world. Such resistance is manifested in individual attitudes towards visible and audible differences. Class, ethnicity, race and religion act as boundaries that separate many new migrants from social, economic, political and spiritual resources that might help to secure their wellbeing. Promoting the creation of a welcoming community also speaks of a shift in the level of understanding that processes such as integration, adaptation, and acculturation involve, both amongst the already established communities and the newcomers.

In this study, I explore the lived experiences of immigrant and migrant mothers through a life history approach, asking questions about how immigrant and migrant mothers understand the concept of integration; how immigrant and migrant mothers experience and define the meaning of a welcoming community; how they measure their integration; which institutions are perceived as critical to their integration process; what are the diverse experiences of immigrant and migrant mothers; and how their particular circumstances affect how they define the meaning of a welcoming community. In addition, I am also interested in looking at the ways in which settlement service providers and providers of support programs for immigrant and migrant mothers in the health sector contribute to the creation of a welcoming community for immigrant and migrant women who settle in Halifax.

My interest in exploring the lived experiences of immigrant and migrant mothers raising children in their permanent or temporary place of settlement builds on the fieldwork I conducted for my Master’s thesis with immigrant mothers living in Halifax. Like many women who are inspired to write about their experiences and female researchers who become interested in issues relating to mothering after having children of their own, my urge to explore these experiences emerged when I became a mother. At this time, I was faced with making cultural choices I did not fully anticipate before I had my children. Making cultural choices, for me, was a process that required a constant negotiation of the beliefs, cultural values and the knowledge of raising children I brought with me from Guatemala, the country where I was born, and those that are encouraged in Canada. Going through this constant negotiation made me realize that I had inadvertently become involved in what I termed cross-cultural mothering work, which involves an incredible amount of invisible intellectual labour.

Cross-cultural mothering refers to the complex forms of agency that migrant women deploy to adjust to new environments. It is the process by which migrant mothers re-work their identities and construct and continually negotiate their mothering practices when living within a culture or country other than the one in which they were born and/or grew up. This concept originates from the premise that these women, situated in specific social contexts and within social relations that are shaped by class, ethnicity, race, gender, and other intersections, bring with them a selective and dynamic knowledge of the values and beliefs of child raising held in their culture/country of origin. But due to their migration, they are involved in re-negotiating cultural values, practices, and institutions of their place of settlement, while maintaining ties with their countries of origin and/or the countries from which they migrated.

Working with an expanded concept of reproduction that includes not only childbirth and mothering, but also the work of negotiating heritage, culture and structures of belonging, I locate this research at the intersection of population and economic policies and civil society, and in particular the practices of service providers and NGOs vis-à-vis migrant mothers. Academic discussions of the importance of Nova Scotia becoming a more inclusive and welcoming province predominantly focus on economic integration. The social and cultural integration of immigrant families and individuals has largely been excluded from these conversations. My research study seeks to contribute to the ongoing academic discussions of integration, adaptation and acculturation in Canada, and in Nova Scotia specifically. It seeks to contribute to the study of both the local and the global governance of migration and to our understanding of what a welcoming community looks like for immigrant and migrant mothers and their families.


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María José is a scholarly and community research practitioner and community leader. She has worked in migration and settlement services for 25 years. She is a PhD candidate in the department of Social Anthropology at York University. Her academic interest is in the experiences of immigrant and migrant women and mothers. She combines her academic interest with her community volunteer work, including her volunteer work with the Immigrant Migrant Women’s Association of Halifax (IMWAH). She also has a personal interest in human rights, the eradication of gender and family violence, gender and development, and the rights of indigenous people in the Americas. She is a member of the Voice of Women for Peace and a member of the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network.

Dislocated Maternal Bodies: Dance Movement Psychotherapy with Refugee Mothers

By Rosalind Howell
 When I Googled ‘refugee mothers’ the other week, this came up on the first page: “Refugee Mothers”. Try as it might, Google could not find any resource that contained both words – the refugee mother somehow could not be located. She was missing.

In a weekly Dance Movement Psychotherapy group for refugee mothers and their preschool children that I facilitate, a participant tells me that at a party in her accommodation recently, someone was taking photographs. The next day, pictures of her appeared, printed out, and pinned up along the street with the word ‘Missing’ emblazoned across them: her image had been turned into a missing persons poster. But, as the woman said to me, genuinely bewildered: “I wasn’t missing?!”

Refugees lose many significant things when they leave their home, including possessions, loved ones, even honor and prestige. All that might remain after their flight from danger is their body and mind, but trauma can make even these feel somehow unreachable or dislocated. As another woman noted in the group: “It’s just my body that is tired, not me”. This feeling of being separate from one’s body may remain even when the refugee is in “in safety”, and it can become a normal way of experiencing the self.

Rediscovering one’s lost body might involve what Psychotherapist Susie Orbach has called ‘daring to be comfortable’ – that is, turning our attention inwards and using this as a place from which to meet the world, rather than colluding with a view of our body based on an objectifying gaze. But trying to ‘get comfortable’ in this way is not easy. In this group, the bodies of the refugee women are often galvanised in tension, ready to fight or flee, or they are quick to collapse, like  formless pools without bone or muscle. When the women choose to perch on a wobbly pile of chairs, feet far from the ground, they seem to be conflating the notion of being comfortable with being ‘safe’ and ‘separate.’  Perhaps it feels too dangerous to lie on the floor, unless curled up in a foetal position. How then to make small physical adjustments that might help tolerate the challenges of the present moment, however uncertain, and from there to move into the future?

As another woman says to me of some casual racism she experienced earlier that day: “I have to let it slide over me, I can’t let it touch me otherwise it will hold me back.” As she spoke, she moved her hand quickly over her body, so that I could imagine something sliding off a surface that nothing could stick to or penetrate. She then leapt up and moved quickly from the spot, engaging in a practical task. This idea of a border that aims, like skin,  to keep out the unwanted is a familiar one to us all these days, whether we are a refugee or host country.

Many psychotherapy interventions for mothers and their infants are based on improving the attachment relationship. But as some have noted, Bowlby’s attachment theory has been in part co-opted by an individualistic, mother-blaming and very Western-centric culture, or misunderstood as the need for a mother to be literally stuck to her baby at all times. Likewise, the use of Winnicott’s concept of ‘primary maternal preoccupation’ often leaves out the crucial point that a mother needs to be well resourced to emotionally care for a baby, and it is the wider environment’s responsibility to ensure that. In the case of refugee mothers, resources are scant, and trauma has been immense.  Refugee women are among those most vulnerable to gender-based violence. They are likely to have experienced rape, domestic violence, FGM, trafficking, or some combination of all of these. It is thus dangerous to foist more blame onto her for the trauma she has experienced. It makes her responsible for the impact of war, geopolitics and  patriarchal violence on subsequent generations, when these forms of violence have been literally acted out on her body.

So how does the political manifest in the physical body? What does it look like, what are its postures, its movements and its bodily felt sensations as it intertwines with personal history? How does the political animate the body of a refugee that has travelled perhaps thousands of miles, but now has no clear way forward and no path back?  And how ‘comfortable’ can these mothers be in their bodies, in a kind of limbo with an uncertain future, but with a child who must be somehow delivered to the future? For the refugee mother, what can her next move be?

A version of this piece was read at the conference Oxytocin, birthing the world, The Royal College of Art, in June 2017.

Rosalind Howell is a Dance Movement Psychotherapist, writer and editor. She has three children.