OTTAWA – Samer Elbanna left Egypt in search of a better life for his family. But leaving a job in procurement — one that had him dealing with companies all over the world — in order to sling burgers at an Ottawa fast food joint wasn’t what he had in mind.
Now the 29-year-old is casting a longing glance back at his homeland, wondering if he has a better shot there at the life he dreams about.
“I’m now thinking a lot of that. Because my life is not easy here,” Elbanna said.
“So I’m thinking about going back to Egypt. I have everything there, or I have to fight here to be something.”
With his daughter Farida about to turn two next month and no prospects on the horizon of landing a job like the one he left in Egypt, Elbanna and his wife Sara are wondering if they should just cut their losses and return home.
If it were simply a matter of paying his dues, Elbanna says he would do it. But it’s hard to make ends meet when you’re new to the country and you’ve got a young family and you’re making minimum wage, or just above it.
Earning such a low salary is especially tough when you know you’ve got just as much experience — or maybe even more — as someone else who just happens to have been born here.
“It’s very difficult,” Elbanna said. “You feel like, so what is the benefit of my experience? What is the benefit of my education? It’s nothing. That’s it.”
The latest batch of numbers from the 2011 National Household Survey, released Wednesday, helps to illustrate what appears to be a growing divide between rich and poor in Canada, one that seems defined, at least in part, by divisions of age and race.
Some 4.8 million Canadians, nearly 15 per cent, are living in poverty in Canada, the Statistics Canada survey found. About 41 per cent of those living in low-income neighbourhoods belonged to a visible minority — 47.5 per cent in those neighbourhoods considered “very low-income,” compared with 24.2 per cent for other neighbourhoods.
Low-income neighbourhoods also had a higher proportion of immigrants — 36.6 per cent, to be precise, with nearly half of them having arrived in Canada between 2001 and 2010. In very low-income neighbourhoods, the percentage jumped to 40 per cent.
“A lot of depression,” is how Elbanna describes the feeling of seeing others in jobs he knows he can do.
“Everyone says to me, ‘Forget your experience. Forget everything, and let’s start like you have no experience,'” he said.
Starting over means living on less. That’s partly why many immigrants find themselves on the wrong end of the income gap with people born in Canada.
In the 1980s, new immigrants earned 85 cents for each dollar earned by Canadian-born men and women.
By 2000, immigrants were earning even less than people born in Canada. Male immigrants earned 67 cents for each dollar earned by Canadian-born men. Female newcomers fared slightly worse, earning 65 cents on the dollar.
By 2005, male immigrants were earning 63 cents and females 56 cents to every dollar earned by Canadian men and women.
Besides making less money than people born in Canada, immigrants also have a harder time finding work.
A 2007 study found immigrants who have been in Canada for five years or less had the most trouble finding jobs, even though they were more likely to be university-educated than those born here.
The country’s unemployment rate in 2006 for very recent immigrants was 11.5 per cent — more than double the rate at the time for the Canadian-born population, which was 4.9 per cent.
The job situation got better for immigrants the longer they lived in Canada, the study found.
The unemployment rate for those who had been in Canada between five and 10 years was 7.3 per cent — still higher than the rate for people born in Canada but lower than the rate for the newest immigrants.
After 10 years in Canada, immigrants and Canadian-born workers had similar rates of employment.
But for people like Elbanna, a decade is a long time to wait for a decent-paying job.
“I’ve spent a lot of money since I’m here … and I gain nothing,” he said.
“Just, I am surviving.”