When Pari Karem fled northern Iraq with her husband and two young daughters in the late 1990s, it cost the family three times the cash to pass through the border than what little money they had left to bring to Canada.
Settling in the southwestern Ontario city of Kitchener, each parent already held a university degree, but they were unable to gain the same level of work they had previously maintained.
So Karem’s husband began working nights as a security guard, commuting to Hamilton to attend classes during the day, while Karem worked as an interpreter at a local multicultural centre and cared for their children.
Despite these meagre beginnings, memories of seeing their home bombed and looted in Iraq meant there was only one thing on Karem’s mind when her husband first became employed on the merits of his new Canadian degree: saving for her children’s education.
“My grandma used to say ‘If you have a weapon, your enemy can take your weapon from you, they can take the gold from you, they can take away your land from you, they can kick you out,”‘ Karem said. “‘But your knowledge and education is in your brain – nobody can take that away from you, and that’s the two weapons you need to have.'”
Karem and her husband join many other immigrants scrimping to put money in the bank to ensure they can pay for their children’s post-secondary education down the line, according to a new report released by the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation.
Many immigrant parents in Canada not only expect their children to get higher-level degrees, the report states, but they are allocating limited family resources to their offspring’s future.
The study found that families in which at least one parent is foreign-born save more for advanced studies than families in which both parents are Canadian-born.
“When immigrants come to Canada, and quite often with family, we could say they are willing to make some sacrifices for making sure their children will be able to attend post-secondary education,” said Anne Motte, who works in the foundation’s research division.
“There’s what we call immigrant optimism. So there is this will for making sure your children have the best possible, (and that means) making sure to save.”
Researchers who conducted the study were interested in learning whether a decline in immigrant income over the past 20 years was effecting parents’ willingness to save for higher learning, said lead investigator Robert Sweet, a professor at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont.
Recent immigrants – 51 per cent of whom arrive with university degrees, according to Statistics Canada – tend to hold strong beliefs their children should attend university, he said.
“So they prioritize. That’s evident here. They don’t have the resources to save as much, but they’re doing it anyway.”
The study surveyed 5,580 parents living in the 10 provinces, breaking them down into three groups: two immigrant parents, blended families, and two Canadian-born parents.
Averaging the amount of savings for the age of the children, it found that even if the groups had attained the same level of education, the blended families saved the most of the three, while families with both Canadian-born parents saved the least.
What may account for these results, Sweet said, is that within blended families, there likely exists both high-aspirations and more functional knowledge of the country, Sweet said.
Among parents who are both Canadian born, it’s possible some foresee success for their children outside the university setting, he said.
“The immigrants come, they tend to respond to the prestige hierarchy in our education system,” he said, adding he believes vocational work is often devalued by the Canadian born, and perhaps more so among immigrants.
He said further research is still needed to break down the origins of immigrant groups, to find out whether certain groups are facing different challenges.
The report emphasizes an ongoing need from governments to provide financial supports for immigrant families who are digging deep into their lower incomes, Motte added.
As for Karem, she and her husband now motivate their 11-and 14-year-old daughters to do well in school by rewarding their achievement with pieces of gold.
“You feel like you left all your history behind, so what’s left for you is the future,” she said. “And that future, you only see it on your kids, so you’ve got to pay really good attention to that.”
– The Canadian Press