In February, for Black History Month, we received a message from Assia Hussein asking us to act more concretely. We heard her message and we will try to do more next year, and for the rest of this year to talk about systemic racism in order to amplify the voices of Black women.
This year, Assia Hussein agreed to sit down to an interview with us in order to share her experiences. As a privileged witness, she has raised important observations on the work accomplished by immigrant women in the pandemic, the peculiar challenges that they face and the support they need from the provincial government. Here is her testimony to be read during our Gender Equality Week because it stresses once more the importance of renewing our commitment to intersectional feminism.
RFNB: Tell me about yourself.
AH: I am an immigrant, originally from Congo. I arrived in Canada in 2009. I have been in Canada for nearly 12 years. When I arrived, I took English classes and, then, I began to work. My first job here was as a housekeeper in a hotel. Then, I got the opportunity to attend the CCNB in Dieppe and I got my diploma as a personal care worker. Then, I began to work in nursing homes and I did it for seven years. Then, I got the chance to work in a group home with needy children and I got several training sessions for this type of work. Now I am still working in this sector. At home, I also take care of a child in need and I’ll be welcoming a second one soon.
RFNB: Have there been obstacles for you as a Black women in New Brunswick?
AH: Yes, absolutely, plenty of obstacles! I have met with obstacles often. Sometimes you ignore them; you are hurt but you keep going. But yes, personally I have encountered them at work, while studying and in my neighbourhood. In fact, I’ve encountered obstacles everywhere.
But maybe obstacle is not the right word… There is racism. We must use the word. When we say racism, we know exactly what we are talking about. And yes, I have met plenty of racism. There are looks that carry racism. People look at you and you feel that they are not ready to welcome you. For example, at work: when we have to work in a team and we have to pick people to work with, everyone disappears. Or, in public transportation, you sit next to someone and you see the person draw away. I can’t say everybody is racist but there are a lot of people who don’t yet understand that we have to live together.
RFNB: So racism does really exist in New Brunswick?
AH: Absolutely. Its systemic roots are there. I am thinking of another example like finding a place to live. People don’t want you as a tenant, they prefer to rent to people with cats and dogs rather than rent to a Black person with a family. I have friends who could not finish their studies because they were Black. These are people who exist. They could talk about their experience anytime.
RFNB: Did you feel welcomed when you arrived to New Brunswick?
AH: Yes, absolutely! The welcome has always been marvelous. I went through more positive integration experiences than negative ones. When I talk about racism, it is in about 30 percent of the cases. The welcome was perfect but it is afterwards that I felt that there are a few irritants here and there.
RFNB: Could you tell us about the meaning of Black History Month?
AH: This year, because of the pandemic, the celebration has been subdued. Usually February is a festive month, it is joyful! But this year, everything has been stopped but it shouldn’t prevent us from speaking about it.
I am a woman and I want to talk especially about women. We immigrant women feel a little -how should I say this-, not abandoned, but it is as if the pandemic has fallen disproportionately upon us. Let me give you some examples. When the pandemic began, 80 percent of immigrant women were working in the care industry. That means that those women still had to be on the job. They couldn’t work from home. All those immigrant women couldn’t remain at home, as they had to be on the job. They are still working today, taking care of people. Here is my problem: the women went on working outside the home while their children had to stay alone at home. In my case, I lived it. I am a single mother to look after my children. I have to go out to work but the children are alone in the house with no one around. The kids have to study online, they need help. That means that we didn’t get any help. While I do my best, I go to work, I go to help others, but there is nobody to help me. It was a problem and it is still a problem that has not been resolved. There was no safety net. There was no help. It was each one for herself.
RFNB: In your opinion, what are the solutions?
AH: Being an immigrant woman, I am not very comfortable with computer technology. I don’t know how to guide my children online. I know people who would be ready to help in my community but how could I pay them? I don’t have the funds. That is anther problem.
Immigrant women have other challenges. Some time ago, we couldn’t work in two different places. During my entire life, I have worked two different jobs. My entire budget is based on having those two jobs. I am paying for my house and my car with those two jobs. I was organized liked that and suddenly it had to stop. Now I can only have one job. What should I do? I have to work only in one job, but I don’t have the revenue I had before. Where are all those Canada Emergency Response Benefit payments given to people who don’t work? I am not against them. I am not jealous but I say that there should be some equality. It seems that nobody thinks of us, people working in the care industry. It is just like in the military: you have to go. That’s it. Now, they should tell us if we are soldiers or not. I am going to work because I want to work. There are people who need my help. On the other hand, nobody helps me. How am I going to make it work? Is there a benefit for those who have lost their second job? Not at all. It is difficult and I don’t think just for immigrants. It is for everybody but particularly immigrant women who have faced many struggles.
RFNB: So there is no program of benefits that adjusts to your reality and your real needs?
AH: Not at all. Even my salary was not changed at all. It was the same before, during and after. We didn’t get any risk benefits. As a mother, I have to work the whole day. I don’t know what will happen at work, I have a lot of stress at work, plus my children who are studying online and have no help at all with their studies. So, I have stress on both sides and, in spite of that, my salary is the same.
RFNB: It is as if there is a good part of the population which does not exist for the government.
AH: Yes, us, the essential care workers are forgotten. The other groups are looked after: the doctors, the nurses, the LPN, but there is also the cleaners and the cooks. They are forgotten as well, but they also face the same risks. Nobody mentions them. I don’t know how the government does it accounting, but it should be more careful.
We do it because we enjoy doing our work. We don’t only think of money… Money doesn’t make anybody happy but we need it to survive! I know of a lot of people who moved to Quebec because the salaries were a lot higher! We are losing staff because nobody cares about our salaries.
RFNB: Thank you Assia for your thoughts.
Regroupement Féministe du Nouveau Brunswick is a non-profit group without political affiliation made up of individuals and organizations whose mission is to uphold the interests of Francophone women in all their diversity in the province.
This interview appeared in French on the RFNB website and was translated to English by Gisèle Blanc-Lavoie.