Iraq-born engineer recalls life during wartime, tastes success in Canada

Engineer Alaa 'Al' Al-Gadhi moved to Canada in 2010 from war-torn Iraq. After taking an employment bridging program through the YWCA, he now works for a technology firm in Stoney Creek.

A successful alum of YWCA employment program for new Canadians, he'll deliver a keynote speech for new grads

Alaa 'Al' Al-Gadhi sits at his computer at ARC Engineering Inc. in Stoney Creek, where he's worked for the past six months. (Matt Moir/CBC)

"It’s so frightening. You don’t know when the time will come when a bomb will drop, or if there will be a booby-trapped car will have a bullet in the street."

Alaa ‘Al’ Al-Gadhi is sitting in an air-conditioned conference room in Stoney Creek describing what life was like in 2006, during the height of the post-US invasion violence in his native Iraq.

"Even if you are the bravest man in the world, nobody likes war. I have been through four wars, but even me and my family are frightened by that situation. It’s horrible to be in a war," said Al-Gadhi.

Seven years after those dark days in Iraq, the Baghdad-born Hamilton resident does not have to worry about bomb blasts anymore, but he does have to think about blueprints and building specs.

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In 2010, Al-Gadhi and his two sisters immigrated to Canada, and for the past six months he has worked as an engineer with ARC Engineering in Stoney Creek. He got the job through a bridging program for new Canadians offered by the Hamilton YWCA, Mohawk College and ECO-Canada.

As the bridging program’s most successful graduate, he has been asked by coordinators at the YWCA to speak at the program’s graduation ceremony at Mohawk on July 3.

"I am so glad to have this honour.  [The bridging program] felt my success is a success…to them personally."

Working on energy efficiency projects at a southern Ontario engineering firm and giving keynote speeches at graduation ceremonies is a world away from the "frightening" life Al-Gadhi left behind after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Some experts estimate that over a 100,000 civilians have died in Iraq over the past decade. Al-Gadhi described the years immediately before he left the country as "a period of killing based on identity."

Comfortable upbringing

But that’s not the country he likes to remember. The Iraq he grew up in was a far different place.

Al-Gadhi was born in a middle-class Baghdad neighborhood in 1962. The son of a judge and a school principal, he described a childhood full of soccer games, Abba and Bee Gees records — How Deep Is Your Love? was his favorite song — and studying.

Education was very important in the Al-Gadhi household, and his parents "did their best to provide [my sisters and I] with the best education available for us."

The investment in education paid off when Al-Gadhi earned a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Baghdad in 1986.

After graduation, he worked in the health care sector "as an engineering department supervisor."

"I was responsible for maintaining healthcare sector equipment like sonography machines, ECG [electrocardiography] monitors and anesthesia units all over Iraq, covering more than 130 hospitals."

The life Al-Gadhi built for himself in Iraq was a comfortable one. He owned two cars in Baghdad. He lived in a spacious house with a large yard, ringed with rose gardens and lemon and orange trees. Life was good.

Moving to Canada

But the violence and strife that plagued Iraq in the years after the American invasion became too much for the Al-Gadhi family, and Al and his two sisters decided to start anew in Canada.

Deeply affected by what he has seen in his native country, Al-Gadhi is unwilling to go into details about the exact circumstances that brought him to this country. When asked about Saddam Hussein’s regime, and the type of visa he came to Canada with, Al-Gadhi politely declined to answer.

"I want to forget everything about the past. To be creative, you must forget the bad times you’ve been through."

When Al-Gadhi arrived in Canada he had a cousin living in Hamilton, but aside from that he had no contacts, and certainly no connections to the engineering industry.

Determined to build a successful life for himself, he immersed himself in a variety of different programs and courses in order to grow a professional network,

"I was part of mentoring programs at JVS and also with the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, and a mentoring program with the Professional Engineers of Ontario."

He even worked as a machine operator’s assistant at a Hamilton bread company.

"All of it was to develop my soft skills. How can I be more adaptive and productive with Canadian work?"

New job, new life

All of the hard work paid off. While taking courses in the YWCA bridging program, Al-Gadhi was approached by one his instructors with a job opportunity with ARC.

Introductions were made and a pair of meetings took place; soon after Al-Gadhi began his new career as a mechanical engineer in Canada.

Art Rebek, president of ARC, is pleased with the addition to his team.

"Al’s very easy to work with. He’s come over and he’s worked vey hard to get into the Canadian way of doing things and…he’s worked really hard to make this work for him."

And Al is happy with his life in Hamilton. And though he misses friends and family from home, he can still taste a small piece of Baghdad in Steeltown.

"You would be surprised how many Iraqi restaurants are open in Ontario…and you can find something more delicious than what you find in Iraq."

Is he a hockey fan, though?

"[When I was] abroad, they told me that Canadians are so friendly, so polite but one thing you must avoid…they told me don’t go play hockey with them!"