What grocery store sells Desi foods and spices? Where can I find a babysitter that speaks my language? What if my VISA expires during COVID-19?
These are just some of the common questions immigrants may have when they move to a new country, especially during a pandemic. That’s what Homeis, a digital platform aiming to provide a more seamless transition for newcomers, hopes to bring to Canada.
“I remember from the moment I moved, I realized that the internet is just broken for immigrants,” Ran Harnevo said.
Harnevo, originally from Israel, saw a need for this type of connection after he moved to the U.S. in 2008. With a background in tech, he co-developed and became the CEO of Homeis, a network for immigrants who share the same background and cultures to connect and help navigate life in the America. Initially the app was created for Israeli immigrants, but has since expanded to include services and communities for immigrants from South Asia, Mexico, and France.
During COVID-19, the platform saw a user increase of about 20 per cent as the virus spread globally, Harnevo said. As people began to lose their jobs and encounter difficulty renewing their work or education VISA’s and had questions like “where can an undocumented immigrant get tested for COVID-19?” or “I’m here on a K1 VISA and have 60 days to find a new job, what should I do?” Since March, there has also been an increased demand on the topic of immigrating to Canada and an interest in virtual information sessions with immigration lawyers and experts.
Now, with nearly a million users worldwide, Homeis is expanding to north, launching its first Canadian digital platform for South Asian immigrants from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka starting Monday.
“South Asian communities are early adopters, they understand the internet well and they are tech savvy,” Harnevo said.
Varsha Ahir is leading the Canadian expansion and she is also the head of South Asian Communities on Homeis.
There are already around two-hundred users in Canada who are part of a United States community, she said. Now they will be able to join a Canadian community and connect with people in their area.
The platform also has a number of support groups to support those who are feeling especially isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Once it is safe to do so, Ahir says she can’t wait for the in-person connections to continue, because they helped her find a sense of belonging.
“I’m a heavy user of the app,” Ahir said.
She moved to the United States in 2018 when she got married to her Indian-American husband. His friends quickly became hers, but she was looking to establish her own networks. “My very first friend I made in the U.S was through Homies. Today I have my own set of friends who have now become my husbands friends,” Ahir said.
Last week, Ahir’s patio needed to be fixed and she asked for help in the marketplace section of the platform. Someone has already visited her house twice to take measurements and estimates for the job, she said.
Though we live in an increasingly digital world, the internet is disorganized and doesn’t foster sense of community, Harnevo said. “Unlike other communities, the immigrant community is based on trust.”
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How does it work? To sign up, users enter their country of origin and where they currently live or hope to live and are immediately connected to a virtual hub where they can ask others questions.
“We’re not trying to build Facebook for immigrants. We’re a company of immigrants, convicted in what we’re doing,” Harnevo adds.