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What We Can Learn from Refugees about Our Capacity for Change

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

By: Eliana Trinaistic, MCIS' Social Impact Manager, LAD Volunteer

Note: The original version of this blog was written in 2018 as a reflection on the MCIS Language Solutions’ service response to the arrival of 25,000 refugees to Canada in December 2016. MCIS was helping with access to language services at airports and settlement centres. These interactions and the dedication of an incredibly well organized group of over 100 Arabic interpreters supporting the effort ultimately led MCIS to be involved with the private sponsorship of a family from Homs, Syria in 2017. These days, as many of us intimately involved with settling Syrian families are reflecting on the fourth year since their arrival, we contemplate how our shared experiences changed us all profoundly and how these families opened our eyes to how crisis management is shaped by language access, communication and trust .

The humanitarian cause that inspired a large number of individuals and organizations to make the challenging but rewarding decision to sponsor Syrian refugee families in 2017 was also an economically motivated and justified move, from what evidence has shown us.

On one side, humanitarian attitudes empowered Canada to retain its legacy of compassionate and inclusive leadership, bringing international values and perspectives to the global forefront. On the other, the research about the impact of diversity on creating innovation and a better “future of work” has demonstrated that the cities and countries supportive of a mixing of cultures and languages tend to also be more adoptive of new ideas, more creative and more innovative. Finally, speaking from a purely demographic perspective, given the size of Canada in proportion to its current population, the likelihood that the number of people required to sustain our future social and financial system will be born in Canada is quite slim. Canada needs people. People must come from somewhere. Those people that Canada desperately needs are arriving from other places are immigrants and refugees.

An investment into welcoming refugees into Canada, in fact, yields substantial economic dividends for generations to come. A recently published multiyear study conducted by the Notre Dame’s Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities revealed that although refugees arrive with lower levels of education and language that initially make them lag behind domestically born (increased precarious employment and use of welfare, lower earnings), over time outcomes improve significantly: “after 6 years in the country, these refugees worked at higher rates than natives although they never attained the earning levels of U.S.-born respondents. We estimate that refugees pay $21,000 more in taxes than they receive in benefits over their first 20 years.”. A couple of years ago another comprehensive European study conducted by the Open Political Economy Network (OPEN) has shown that “investing one euro in welcoming refugees yields nearly two euros in economic benefits within five years.” (pg.3). In addition, refugees are not only “economically beneficial” to their host country long term, they can also create savings in terms of growing social capital: “It costs only £25,000 ($35,750) to train a refugee doctor to practise in the UK, compared with over £250,000 ($357,500) for a new British one.”(pg. 9)

In fact, all relevant research exploring efforts to engage refugees with work published in the past decade uniformly provides evidence for refugees having an exceptional openness and ability to grow new skills. It seems that the mindset of being “newly arrived” reduces resistance to change, enabling people to adapt more quickly. However, immigration policy priorities often create barriers to adopting these concepts, lacking ambition and will to review resettlement from a “growth-oriented mindset” perspective. In one study by Lou and Noels exploring the importance of fluency in local languages, it was found that “trait and experimentally-induced fixed (vs. growth) mindsets led to negative judgments of immigrants’ potential to develop their skills in the local language, which in turn predicted avoidance of contact with migrants and opposition to governmental funding of immigrants’ language education”. Proven international strategies such as incentives for employer led and work facilitated, “can-do” acquisition of language widely applied in Germany could serve as a good practical example of projects being successfully piloted and scaled.

Our own examples in Canada, particularly the efforts of Jim Estill of Danby to combine a “growth-oriented mindset” with rapid access to the marketplace, significantly helped in resettlement efforts by simply nurturing the idea that compassion and positive expectations about people will yield economic benefits.


In some ways, while reflecting on this issue, I also came to realize how our own perceptions about “refugees” simply mirror our fears about the disruptive nature of “change”. Refugees and asylum seekers are seen as economic “disruptors”, forced to work for lower (“more competitive”) wages while also experiencing work scarcity and insecurity amplified by their socio-political destinies. Yet, sometimes “successful” and better integrated refugees are perceived as having a superhuman change capacity for endurance, visioning and coping. Although there is some truth in the fact that a perceived lack of safety may temporarily increase flexibility and resilience, there is only so much that we can do if we rely solely on our biological fight and flight responses. To grow their full potential people need circumstances for growth – from access to services to education and jobs. In that sense, access to language services, in particular, followed by an effective, agile, work-based language education seem to be an exceptionally important gateway for nurturing a “growth-oriented mindset”.

And if we go one step further and think not only about the arrival of Syrian refugees in Canada four years ago, but also the displacement numbers in the world - the 70M people that are currently on the move due to conflict, persecution or environmental causes, half of them being refugees under the age of 18 - and our pandemic life in more stable Western economies, it is likely that our entire post-COVID recovery will rely on both increased immigration and humanitarian efforts to help alleviate the global crisis and clever change management of “growth-oriented mindset” to enable people to believe that they can participate in creation of their own economic and job solutions.

The good news here is that we have already learned from immigrants and refugees experiences that improvisation, creativity and can-do attitudes not only work, but are profitable. We will survive.

The other thing we hopefully learned here is that nurturing positive expectations about the human ability to change one’s own circumstances for better is rooted in the compassion we offer to others, as much as we ultimately offer to ourselves.


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