Syrian doctors want to work in Canada, but face 'many, many years' of re-training

Christian and Kathrin Vitale have decades of experience treating patients in Syria. But finding work as physicians in Alberta could take years — and thousands of dollars.

'It's devastating for people,' says lead physician at refugee health clinic

Christian Vitale, with his wife Kathrin, and sons Matthew and Nicolas in Lattakia city, Syria. (Submitted by the Vitale family)

It has been a year since Canada started getting an unprecedented influx of Syrian refugees, with more than 2,000 settling in Calgary alone. This is Part 4 in a five-part series looking at how those refugees are doing a year in and the effects of that influx on their support agencies.

Christian Vitale and his wife have decades of experience treating patients in Syria.

But finding work as a physician in Alberta could take years — and thousands of dollars.

The story of foreign-trained doctors getting licensed in Alberta and the lengthy process they face is not new, but the arrival of more than 4,000 Syrian refugees has brought the issue back to life.

Vitale worked as a family doctor in his home city of Lattakia, the principal port city of Syria. 

His wife Kathrin is a gynecologist. 

Christian Vitale, 51, takes a break from English classes at Bow Valley College in downtown Calgary. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

His son, Nicolas, a medical student, was at a bus stop minutes before a bomb attack wounded and killed 200 people in Lattakia in July 2015. 

That convinced Vitale it was time to leave Syria.

The family fled to Lebanon where they rented a small apartment in Tripoli for four months before arriving in Calgary in February.

He says he has to go through a long process again to be certified as a doctor in Alberta. 

I'm a physician, graduated from Syria, but the problem is the Alberta health care system doesn't recognize the internationally-graduated professionals," said Vitale.

The first step is to improve his English language skills — something he's doing at Bow Valley College. 

Vitale was sponsored by the First Alliance Church, but he's supporting himself and his family. He says his savings will run out in a few months.

"We cannot afford the cost of living here in Canada," he says.

"Calgary is an expensive city to live in. I have to get a job soon."

'Devastating for people'

Dr. Annalee Coakley at the Mosaic Refugee Health Clinic in northeast Calgary. (CBC)

The lead physician at the Mosaic Refugee Health Clinic in northeast Calgary would like to see a more streamlined process for foreign-trained doctors.

"It's not just one or two years, it's many, many years," says Dr. Annalee Coakley.

She says part of the certification includes an internship and the requirement to complete residency training — something the physicians have already done.

"It's devastating for people," Coakley says.

Coakley says if you're a professional, it's something that's integral to your identity. 

And she says if you're unable to pursue your professional interests and goals, it can erode your sense of self, your self-esteem and your ability to integrate into the community. 

"You come from a society where you had a role and you're now forcibly removed from that role and position within that community."

She estimates that one out of 10 refugees who've come from Syria are professionals who are having difficulty finding work in their field, or even obtaining the required credentials.

"It's not a huge number, but it's significant when you're talking about people who can be contributing to our society in a different way — instead of cleaning the Bow Tower," says Coakley. 

Trevor Theman says the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons has minimum standards, and is not going to change the rules and requirements for any group. (CBC)

According to the College of Physicians & Surgeons of Alberta (CPSA), the same rules apply to everyone, and Alberta is already one of the most accommodating provincial regulators in the county.

"Our job as a regulator is to ensure the safety of the public," CPSA spokesperson Dr. Trevor Theman told CBC News. 

"So we're not going to turn somebody loose on the public and give them an independent practice licence unless they can prove to us that they can meet acceptable criteria."

Almost a third — 32 per cent — of Alberta doctors already have medical degrees from another country, including several from the Middle East, he said.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for internationally-trained physicians is the requirement for post-graduate training, also known as a residency. 

A minimum residency of two years is required to be a family doctor in Canada, and a minimum of four years for psychiatrists and specialists.

Vitale says he's grateful to Canada for taking in refugees from Syria. But he wants to contribute and give back.

"I can participate in Canadian society better if I work in a field where I have experience and education," says Vitale.

He says it would be good for Canada and good for his family.