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In Canada, Refugees Leapfrog Career Barriers With Help of Volunteers

Despite Canada’s recent welcome to Syrians and other refugees, many still face significant hurdles getting jobs that match their professional level. Alia Dharssi reports on the volunteers and businesses helping refugees navigate the Canadian labor market.

Written by Alia Dharssi Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
People protest against Islamophobia and in support of refugees in Toronto in November 2015. Arindam Shivaani/NurPhoto

VANCOUVER – Even though Maral Melkonian had already spent 15 years working in banking when she arrived in Toronto in January 2016, she wasn’t sure how to look for a job. She didn’t know how to write a Canadian resume, use LinkedIn or what to expect in an interview.

The process was worlds away from the professional life she once led in Syria. But that existence was blown to pieces in 2012, when Melkonian, now 41, fled her home in Aleppo with her husband and 9-year-old daughter – their house and her husband’s jewelry shop destroyed in the Syrian civil war.

Once in Toronto, Melkonian was anxious to start supporting her family. Within six months, she was. She landed a job as a credit assistant at Toronto Dominion Bank, one of the largest in Canada.

The crucial link between her and a job in her field was a volunteer – an associate vice president at Toronto Dominion – who taught Melkonian the ins and outs of looking for a job in Canada, and advised her on how to move forward when she received job offers from two banks in the same week.

“I’m very happy at my work,” says Melkonian. “And I’m feeling that I’m a member of the Canadian society now.”

Her story is not unusual. Across Canada, volunteers and businesses are helping refugees land jobs in the face of significant hurdles, ranging from poor English to a lack of know-how about Canadian culture. They’ve proven integral to the settlement of an influx of Syrian refugees in Canada since late 2015.

“I think the Canadian government signed up for 25,000 refugees in three months [in 2015] before it actually talked to civil servants, NGOs and logisticians about whether it was possible,” said Jennifer Hyndman, director of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University in Toronto. “And I think it was made possible through a lot of very invisible volunteering.”

The Volunteer Surge

Volunteers help refugees navigate a variety of everyday activities, ranging from grocery shopping to showing them around city parks, as they ease into life in Canada. Often, volunteers are matched with refugees through government-supported settlement and employment agencies, such as the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council, which helped Melkonian connect with her mentor.

At the same time, initiatives driven and organized by the public have soared since 2015, driven by concern for Syrian refugees. When the Canadian government pledged to sponsor 25,000 Syrian refugees, settlement agencies and charities were inundated with thousands of offers of help. These ranged from rental car companies that volunteered to transport refugees to groups of grandmothers knitting them winter caps.

Others puzzled over how they could help Syrians land jobs and businesses took an unprecedented interest in their economic integration. Vancouver’s tech sector created #Startland, an initiative to teach refugees to code and fill shortages in tech companies. In Toronto, volunteers created a roundtable called the Syrian Refugees Job Agenda and brought 40 businesses, including some of Canada’s biggest companies, together. It spawned commitments to hire and train refugees, include a pledge by Starbucks Canada in June to hire 1,000 refugees over five years, and a streamlined training program for Syrian refugees interested in construction-related occupations.

Many more businesses made smaller pledges to hire or mentor a few employees. Others launched social enterprises, like a tea company and a restaurant to employ refugees.

“There isn’t a database of all those examples, but they’re pretty widespread,” said Hyndman. “They aren’t always huge initiatives, but they make a huge difference in terms of impact in the lives of people that they affect.”

Professional Barriers

By helping refugees build professional contacts, obtain training and providing jobs, voluntary efforts ease the barriers refugees face when entering the job market. These include gaps in their work history, a lack of professional contacts and limited knowledge about Canadian culture. Many refugees also come to Canada with poor English and French, or low levels of education. Meanwhile, educated refugees struggle to obtain proof of degrees from universities in war-torn countries, effectively rendering their education worthless in Canada.

These issues are compounded by the challenges of displacement and starting afresh. Refugees receive income support for their first year in Canada, but “a year goes by quickly” as refugees get their bearings and basic needs met, said Rita Chahal, executive director of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council.

As a result, refugees are more likely to end up in low-paying jobs. In fact, the barriers are so great that it takes, on average, 14 or more years for a refugee’s income to meet that of a similarly educated Canadian citizen, according to research from the University of Manitoba. In 2014, Statistics Canada reported that the median earnings of refugees are $24,000, or $9,000 less than other immigrants, a decade after landing in Canada.

Some experts are hopeful the surge in public interest from the Syrian crisis will translate into more opportunities for refugees from other parts of the world. In some cases, they already have. For example, #Startland was inspired by Syrian refugees, but ended up placing 31 refugees and immigrants from different countries in coding boot camps.

“Small things are making a huge difference,” said Daisy Quon, senior manager at the Immigrant Employment Council of British Columbia, who has observed a growing number of concerned businesses adjust jobs to refugees by providing language support or adjusting their schedule so they can take English classes.

Sponsors with Social Networks

Some of the most significant voluntary efforts to integrate refugees are undertaken by private sponsors, who work in groups of five and raise C$30,000 ($24,000) to bring and support a refugee family through their first year in Canada. They’ve brought nearly 15,000 Syrian refugees to Canada since late 2015, bringing the total number of Syrian refugees who have arrived in Canada to more than 40,000.

Public data indicate refugees with private sponsors finds jobs more quickly after arrival than government-sponsored ones. Christopher Kyriakides, a sociologist at York University, said this has to do with the “informal” relationship between private sponsors and refugees. Like volunteer mentors, sponsors often become directly engaged in the job search of refugees, tapping into their personal network or directly calling businesses to help them find them a job.

But, even with the outpouring of help, resolving some of the refugees’ employment struggles is a matter of time. Melkonian is well aware of this reality. She is concerned about her husband, who ran his own jewelry business in Aleppo, but now works in air conditioning maintenance as he tries to improve his weak English.

“We have to be patient,” Melkonian says. “I’m thanking God we are safe now.”

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