When two mortars smashed into his Aleppo home three years ago, Riad Jarmak knew he and his wife Viola had no choice but to flee Syria.
"Either I die in my country at any moment or I come here and start all over from zero," said Jarmak, who now lives in a small, tidy apartment in suburban Toronto with Viola and their two-year-old son, Joseph.
After the attack, the Jarmaks quickly packed what they could and travelled to Lebanon. They finally arrived in Canada in December.
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It wasn't easy to abandon all he had built in Aleppo, Jarmak says, including his home, his business and his career. But there was something else very precious left behind in his war-torn homeland: the documentation needed to prove he's a qualified mechanical engineer.
It's a problem for many Syrian professionals trying to start a new life in Canada. Agencies here that evaluate credentials often have no way to request such documents from institutions back in Syria.
'Either I die in my country at any moment or I come here and start all over from zero.' - Riad Jarmak
Starting over for any newcomer is challenging. There are language barriers, culture shock and often difficulties finding a job. On the face of it, professionals such as Jarmak should have an easier time with their expertise and experience.
But he cannot find work in his field because he cannot prove his credentials.
Marcus Parmegiani of World Education Services (WES), a non-profit organization based in Toronto specializing in credential assessments, says a disproportionate number of Syrians have failed to qualify for certification in Canada for the same reason.
"This is really the first step to getting started, and unless you pass the first threshold, you cannot get started at all," he said.
While almost all those who apply from countries other than Syria succeed in having their credentials recognized, the failure rate for the 2,500 Syrians who've applied with WES this year is expected to be nearly 40 per cent, according to Parmegiani.
That doesn't take into account those Syrian professionals who haven't even bothered to try.
So WES has started a pilot project, what it calls an alternative assessment, to help those whose lives are on hold.
Academic Institutions, regulatory bodies and employers rely on WES reports when assessing internationally educated candidates.
Normally, WES requires original transcripts and records delivered directly from a school or regulatory body to produce its evaluation reports. But for the people enrolled in the pilot project, WES is willing to look at copies of diplomas, transcripts and professional licences, along with any other pertinent documents.
There are about 100 Syrians enrolled in the pilot. Parmegiani admits there are concerns about potential fraud, but WES plans to track the results over the next several months to determine whether it can work.
The process, even after credentials are recognized, can still take years, depending on the demands of the professional regulating bodies. But the goal of the pilot project is to help them clear that big first hurdle.
"When we have people who are highly educated and highly qualified working in jobs that are low paying or they're just underemployed, it is really a drain on them and it is a drain on society," Parmegiani said. "It is a problem for them emotionally and it really affects them in health and long-term outcomes of their own families."
'Matthew versus Sameer'
Senator Ratna Omidvar, who's been at the centre of efforts to help Syrian refugees settle in Canada, says there are programs to support them while they take courses and exams to qualify to work here, but other obstacles remain.
"Frankly, there is unconscious bias [in hiring]," she said. "It has been well documented by the University of Toronto that you can have all the qualifications in the world, but if your name evokes a different culture, a different place of education, you are 40 per cent less likely to get an interview.
"It is Matthew versus Sameer."
Jarmak is enrolled in the pilot project. As he and Viola sift through the documents he does have, photocopies of certificates and his degree, they worry about the future.
"For five years we have been spending all of our life savings just to live," said Viola, who's been trying to find work as an administrative assistant.
"What I am asking for is to give us a chance," her husband said. "A month, two months. Just to try to see what we are capable of. And based on that, they can judge us."