What started as a business expansion on 107th Avenue just north of downtown Edmonton has turned its owners into "accidental social workers," they say.

Last year, Ahmed Hussein and Oways Sandouka opened a new office at 107th Avenue and 112th Street.

Their company, Cloud HSE, offers health and safety training plus risk management services.

But rampant unemployment in a neighbourhood with large numbers of refugees, newer immigrants and Indigenous residents forced them into an unexpected role.

"Suddenly we became, basically, accidental social workers," said Hussein. "It went from the training to 'Please get me a job.' "

Since then, Hussein has volunteered his time searching for jobs and calling companies on behalf of those turning up desperate for work. Many have been unemployed for months, if not years.

The second-floor office is often overrun with job seekers using computers and asking for help with unemployment insurance or resume writing.

Loaves of bread and jars of peanut butter, jam and Nutella are continuously replenished on a centre table for anyone needing a meal.

'Irrational barriers' stop people from working

In his new role, Hussein often contacted the provincial Alberta Works employment services office to secure funding for skills training, known as "exposure courses." The short-term courses, such as first aid or hazardous materials in the workplace, are often required for construction or oil sands work. They cost between $70 and $200 and multiple courses are usually needed.

But the business partners soon identified major obstacles: to qualify for course funding you need a job, but employers won't usually hire someone without training.

For those who do manage to get hired other requirements, such as financial documents and employer verification, can create more roadblocks. By the time funding is approved, the course has often started or the job opportunity has passed.

Ahmed Hussein

Business owner Ahmed Hussein began advocating for unemployed immigrants after opening an office on 107 Avenue last year. (CBC)

Hussein and Sandouka began paying out of their own pocket so young men could get their safety tickets and work.

"The system is ridden with a lot of these irrational barriers that stop people from obtaining successful employment and advancing in general," said Hussein. "So then what people do is they give up or they go into the underground economy."

Hussein recalled being just "a happy middle-class dude" who believed "you can be whatever you want" until he moved onto the avenue.

"But then, when I meet people who don't have any options, it breaks your heart," he said. 

A stroll east of Cloud HSE takes you past busy Mexican, Vietnamese and East African restaurants, where men socialize out front.

'That's what employment does — it eliminates resentment and it also promotes integration and interaction within society' - Business owner Ahmed Hussein

Men in cowboy hats and women in hijabs walk past daycares, a church, salons and stores advertising halal meat and money transfer services. Moms and kids hold hands alongside backpack-wearing students and cyclists on bikes piled high with bottles.

According to local business owners, this is the landing place for many of those arriving in Edmonton, chasing the Alberta dream.

Most — originally from a variety of African countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan and Nigeria, but also from the Middle East, Ontario or Indigenous communities — are drawn to the neighbourhood's affordable housing, wide-ranging services, communal spirit and instant community.

At 113th Street, the Edmonton Immigrant Services Association is one of the local agencies that offers supports to newcomers. Action For Healthy Communities, located two blocks south, offers integration support and skills and language training. There doesn't appear to be a local soup kitchen, food bank or thrift shop. A building once home to Catholic Social Services now sits empty. 

On Tuesday, less than a week before Edmontonians head to the polls to vote in the municipal election, there were few election signs in sight.

107 Ave.

Known as the Avenue of Nations, 107th Avenue's community is made up of generations of Edmontonians, Indigenous members and immigrants from all over the world. (CBC)

In the summer Alberta Education Minister David Eggen launched an initiative to combat racism and promote diversity in the province. The report is due this fall. Hussein insists it must address barriers to employment faced by 107th Avenue residents.

He said he has documented cases where those seeking skills training at Alberta Works have instead been offered income assistance. Providing a hand out and not a hand up, isn't the answer, he said.

"That's what employment does — it eliminates resentment and it also promotes integration and interaction within society," said Hussein.

In an emailed statement, Alberta Labour Minister Christina Gray said she and Eggen have met with community groups for input on the anti-racism program and unemployment.

"Alberta Labour and Community and Social Services have worked collaboratively to reach out to both Cloud HSE as well as community members on 107 Avenue in Edmonton to address their concerns and ensure they receive the proper supports," she wrote. "We will continue to work with all our partners to provide the right kind of employment and training supports for all Albertans."

Edmonton-Centre MLA David Shepherd toured 107 Avenue with Hussein last month. He said the government is looking into ways to address the issues raised by Cloud HSE.

Area 'critically needs help:' McKeen

Ward 6 city Coun. Scott McKeen said employment doesn't fall under the city's jurisdiction. But work is being done through organizations such as Reach Edmonton, an organization that promotes community safety, he said. Designated representatives work with 107th Avenue businesses to identify issues the city can help with, he added.

"It is an area of town that critically needs help," McKeen said.

"We need to do more as government, as communities, to make sure that our newcomers to Edmonton, in particular refugees, are not just welcomed, but treated with special programs to make sure that parents, but especially the youth, have opportunities. We don't want to lose a generation of kids."

Mustafa Ahmed

Zuhur restaurant owner Mustafa Ahmed and his partner have paid for 30 unemployed community members to upgrade their training. (CBC)

Business owners are doing what they can to make sure that doesn't happen, but say they need government backing.

At the popular Somali and Italian restaurant Zuhor, patrons pack the booths. Over steaming plates of oven-baked goat, sweet chicken, spaghetti and saffron rice, they laugh and chat in Somali, English, Oromo, Chinese and French.

'Either you help them get on their feet or watch them become homeless ... they're ready to work. - Business owner Liban Weid

Many customers have benefited from the generosity of the owners. Mustafa Ahmed and his business partner have provided free meals and purchased warm clothes for new families.

Two years ago they started paying for exposure courses, allowing up to 30 people to return to work and pay for their own meals, at a cost of close to $20,000.

"It makes us happy that that person succeeded," said Ahmed. "If he didn't have that money and we didn't help him, maybe he would go on the wrong way of life."

Ahmed noted there were two robberies at neighbouring businesses in the past week.

Liban Weid

Business owner Liban Weid lends thousands of dollars each month to help unemployed residents get back to work. (CBC)

Four blocks over, Liban Weid operates the Quick Trip convenience store and a money transfer service. But he also lends thousands of dollars for safety training each month. Once they are employed, he said, most pay it back.

"Either you help them get on their feet or watch them become homeless," said Weid. "They're willing to work, they're ready to work."

It's an investment that shows how a little help goes a long way, by allowing unemployed residents to become taxpayers and engage in the community, Weid said.

Weid has joined Ahmed and Hussein to launch an organization called  the Race and Economic Equality Centre (REE). The new agency will take over the offices of Cloud HSE as the company moves to a new location but continues to fund the space and a receptionist. 

The aim of REE is to tackle systemic racism, provide employment and language services, and mobilize 107th Avenue residents to use their voting power to get their needs addressed.


andrea.huncar@cbc.ca             @andreahuncar