Syrian refugees being primed to work in Alberta's agriculture industry

A solution to the ongoing labour shortage in rural Alberta may have already arrived from Syria, where agriculture accounted for more than 20 per cent of the country’s GDP before the civil war.

Despite province's high unemployment rate, farms outside city face labour shortage

Haroun Al-Juhmani (far right), pictured here with his family in Calgary, spent decades growing crops in Syria and Cyprus. (Falice Chin/CBC)

A solution to the ongoing labour shortage in rural Alberta may have already arrived from Syria, where agriculture accounted for more than 20 per cent of the country's GDP before the civil war.

A Calgary-based resettlement service provider is looking to set up a bridge program to help reintroduce Syrian refugees and other immigrants to farming in Canada.

"If they've already been in agriculture, they already understand the lifestyle," said Anila Lee-Yuen, CEO of the Centre for Newcomers.

Lee-Yuen estimates about a fifth of the 10,000 newcomers who walk through the centre's door every year would be interested.

The centre is currently in talks with various agriculture groups, a post-secondary institution, and Wildrose MLA Nathan Cooper about the program, which could come as early as spring of 2017.

"There has been lots of positive response," said Cooper, who represents the rural riding of Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills.

"Sometimes, rural Alberta has a bad reputation for not being welcoming. But I think as we look closer, rural Alberta is a very welcoming place."

Hurting for workers

Despite the high unemployment rate in Alberta, farmers and processing plants outside the cities have had a tough time finding and retaining workers.

Jason Hagel, owner of Hagel Feeders near Three Hills, said he's seen dozens of workers come through his farm over the past five years, with only a handful staying.

"I don't think I've fired one person yet," said Hagel, adding he only wants to hire full-time, permanent workers.

"It's crazy. We'll have them for a week or two. Then they realize they don't like it and leave."

Jason Hagel, the owner of Hagel Feeders near Three Hills, Alta., says he's had a hard time finding and retaining workers at this feedlot and grain farm. (Falice Chin/CBC)

Workers who have been laid off from the oilpatch would sometimes seek work at the 5,000-head cattle feedlot and grain farm, said Hagel. But the fourth generation Alberta farmer said he's been disappointed plenty of times.

"I had a guy here for four days," Hagel recalled. "He asked for an advance, so I said, 'I'll give you an advance of what you've worked.' I gave him that advance and he was gone. And it wasn't the first time, either."

In recent years, employers like Hagel have relied on Canada's temporary foreign worker program to fill the labour gap. But with the rules tightening, that source of workers is drying up.

Hagel said he'd be open to hiring Syrian refugees, provided there's a way to communicate effectively.

"You can always take the farmer out of the farm, but you can't take the farm out of the kid, right?" Hagel laughed.  

The bridge program would provide both language and workplace training for the aspiring farmers.

Backyard farming in the city

The only farming many of the Syrian refugees get to do in the city these days is in the backyard.

Since arriving with his wife and four children in February, through the sponsorship of a local church, Haroun Al-Juhmani has helped transform four backyards into edible gardens.

Prior to fleeing his home country, the 43-year-old refugee from Daraa had spent decades growing crops in both Syria and Cyprus.

Syrian refugee Haroun Al-Juhmani, 43, tends a tomato plant for his neighbour in the southeast Calgary neighbouhood of Forest Lawn. (Falice Chin/CBC)

Speaking through an Arabic interpreter, Al-Juhmani said Calgary has been wonderful and safe, but he and his family would like to return to the countryside, where life is more quiet.

"Potato, tomato," Al-Juhmani joked with his limited English.

After months of waiting, Al-Juhmani is finally enrolled in an ESL program. He said he's trying his best and he hopes to get regular work in the new year.

But he said his long-term dream is to one day own his own piece of farmland.

"Inshallah," said Al-Juhmani — Arabic for "God willing."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener