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African international students at TMU have a first-time concern: Racism

By Moyo Lawuyi and Victor Ola-Matthew

When Toluwani Adeniyi first came to Canada in the fall of 2021, everywhere was a reminder that she was Black. There was a stark difference from her home country, where most of the population is Black. 

“It was a sudden rude awakening,” she says. 

Adeniyi, a third-year psychology international student from Nigeria, began to notice that the colour of her skin could now be the cause of several complications in her life, including being able to get a job.

While she doesn’t believe she has experienced outright racism from a person in Canada since moving here in 2021, she admits she might just not have noticed since she grew up in Nigeria and wasn’t very educated about race issues prior to her move.

For some international students from Africa, living in the multicultural city of Toronto proves difficult. Many of them say they’ve experienced racism for the first time, something they never had to worry about in Africa and quickly realize how race affects their everyday lives.

According to the City of Toronto’s action plan to confront anti-Black racism, more than 200,000 people of African descent or origin in the city are affected by racism, making it hard for them to integrate into a new society. In addition to the typical culture shock that comes with coming to a new country, African international students encounter what is for them the strange feeling of being treated differently from their white counterparts.

“It was a sudden rude awakening”

Despite the racism they experience, African immigration is increasing in Canada. According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada News, Canada welcomed more than 300,000 immigrants in 2022 from the continent, with Nigeria being the fifth top source. Toronto is also a popular destination, with 88,020 African immigrants arriving here in 2021.

Usha George is the former director of TMU’s Centre for Immigration and Settlement and an expert in Canadian immigration. She explains why immigrants from African countries keep migrating to Canada despite possibly dealing with racism that doesn’t exist in their home countries. 

George says Canada has fewer racist incidents than other developed countries. In addition, Canada—and especially Toronto—is filled with so many economic opportunities that immigrants are willing to overlook the racial discrimination they will face. “People are looking for the final outcome, for the final goal of moving away from their country and in my opinion, they think this is a better bet,” said George. 

Dora Antwi Adomako, a former third-year exchange student in the performance production program from Ghana, recounted a racist incident she experienced when she came to Toronto in September 2022. Adomako was at Oakham Café, a restaurant on campus located inside the Student Campus Centre, when a staff member abruptly asked her to leave without a reason. This happened in her first semester as an exchange student. 

Adomako was perplexed by the sudden request and left to get lunch elsewhere without further investigations to find out the motives of the staff. She had only recently arrived in Canada and was happy she made it, so she was blind to the experience. “It is only now, looking back, that I feel it,” she says. 

The Eyeopener reached out to Oakham Café for comment regarding this incident. “This is obviously quite upsetting to hear, we never want anyone to leave the Café or any of our operations feeling this way,” said Crystal Pettman, the restaurant manager. 

Adomako says she adjusted more to Toronto’s multicultural climate with the help of her friends, who were mostly white. She also says she didn’t find it hard to meet Black students from familiar backgrounds and experiences when she arrived on campus, with the help of the Tri-Mentoring Program’s Black Students’ Lounge (BSL).  

Still, Adomako says she felt they already had friend groups which she found hard to penetrate into. “The Black Students’ Lounge (BSL) made me feel some sort of belonging but honestly, the white students [in my classes] were always checking up on me and made me feel more welcomed,” she says. 

According to TMU’s Student Life and Learning Support website, the BSL, located at Kerr Hall West 77A, is “an identity-affirming space on campus where Black students at Toronto can study, heal, relax, gain tools and resources, make new friends and build community.” 

“It is only now, looking back, that I feel it”

While racism is prevalent when they enter Canada, some African immigrants also say they start experiencing racial discrimination before they even enter the country. Many African-born students at TMU say they had to wait very long for their study permits despite meeting all the requirements.

Fred Mammah, a first-year Nigerian chemical engineering student, says his visa processing took five months. “They gave no feedback during the entire process, so it was really hard to plan,” he says. Because of the long wait time, he missed his orientation in September 2022 and had a harder time making friends than others. 

Visa processing times for African countries are particularly slow. According to the Canadian Council for Refugees, the Canadian visa office in Nairobi, Kenya, which processes visas for 18 African countries such as—Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda—is the slowest in the world. Adeniyi, who was forced to leave China—where she was studying—in 2020 due to the COVID-19 outbreak, says the processing time for a Canadian visitor’s visa from China only took two weeks, as opposed to her parents’ two-year wait for one in Nigeria.

Mammah has friends who have fulfilled all the requirements for their visas since April 2022 yet, at the time of this interview, were still waiting for their study permits, which they have since received. George says she has had African students in her classes who were forced to learn online due to their study permit delays. 

During a House of Commons session in May this year, the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) recognized the racism within its system. Its report stated that in the IRCC, there were “widespread internal references to certain African countries as ‘the dirty 30,’ and stereotypes of Nigerians as “particularly untrustworthy.” 

The report said racial biases are a significant factor in the high refusal rates of immigrants from African countries. Since then, the IRCC has pledged to do more to remove racial bias from its system. “If I had a different passport, I believe I would have been given more priority,” says Mammah.

“If it’s within your power, say something”

Adeniyi says she has doubts about how to deal with racist encounters as she isn’t a very confrontational person. “I have tendencies to just let it go but the problem is that if I let it go, it could be done to someone else who isn’t as strong as I am,” she says. 

She suggests that students who have difficulties confronting others after dealing with a racist encounter could report the situation to their professor and ask to be kept out of the loop of the matter. She says for some international students at a social disadvantage, like those with social anxiety, confronting racism may be difficult while for others it may not be. But if they don’t speak up, whether through email reports or in person, another international student is bound to have the same experience. 

“If it’s within your power, say something,” says Adeniyi.

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