These refugees are coming to Canada as health-care workers. Trouble is, they've been waiting for years
Feds target refugee camps as a way to help ease shortage of health-care workers
For nine years, Patricia Kamssor has been working in a clinic in a refugee camp in Kenya doing everything from cleaning and dressing wounds to giving injections, treating infections caused by eating infected goats and cows, and helping one child who had a piece of corn stuck in their nose.
Established in 1992, Kakuma is one of the world's largest refugee camps, home to 260,570 people who have fled violence in nearby African countries. It is hot, dusty and congested, with rows and rows of what is meant to be temporary housing made from clay and thin sheets of metal in Kenya's northwestern corner.
It's also Kamssor's home. She's a refugee herself, and she's been invited to come to Canada to work in a nursing home on Nova Scotia's south shore.
"I like helping people. Actually, I have that heart of helping people," she said in a recent interview at her home in the camp.
She is among 121 refugees who have been offered jobs as continuing care assistants in Nova Scotia under a new federal program called the Economic Mobility Pathways Pilot (EMPP). But it's already been two years since she was accepted into the program, and she still hasn't made it to Canada, partially because of the pandemic and because governments are still working out the kinks.
It is not a humanitarian program, but rather a new pathway designed to create a bridge between a need for health-care workers in Canada and displaced people living in refugee camps who want to move here.
Since the EMPP began in 2018 as a small research project, 132 people — 48 applicants and 84 of their dependents — have come to Canada this way. Initially funded entirely through philanthropy, the federal government is now providing $6.2 million to the program to help partner NGOs identify qualified candidates overseas and support them through the interview, hiring and immigration processes.
The government is also working with communities and employers across the country to raise awareness of the program, with the goal of welcoming 2,000 qualified refugees to work in various sectors with shortages over the next few years.
Abdifatah Sabriye is around 30 years old — he doesn't know his birth date, which is not uncommon in some parts of Africa. He's been living in the Kakuma camp since he fled Somalia with his mother, two sisters, and two brothers 14 years ago. The family's father and eldest brother were killed in Somalia's civil war.
Sabriye said they didn't get the emergency medical care they needed.
"That motivated me to become a health-care worker," he said as he walked through his neighbourhood inside the refugee camp.
Sabriye has been a medical assistant since 2018, doing similar work as Kamssor. He was accepted into Canada's program in February 2021 and has been working his way through the various stages of it since then.
No information about when they may arrive
Both Kamssor and Sabriye admit when they initially heard Canada was looking for health-care workers, they didn't think it was real. They've now been through such a process they believe the opportunity is real, but neither has any information about when they may arrive in Canada.
"They have not told us anything. It's still waiting," said Kamssor.
Nine provinces and territories are now participating in the program, but employers in Nova Scotia have issued the greatest number of job offers to EMPP candidates.
"Reality is, we need health-care professionals and places like the Kakuma camp have the people and the skills that we need," said Suzanne Ley, senior executive director for the Office of Healthcare Professionals Recruitment in Nova Scotia, an office created to address the province's shortage.
Ley, who was part of a recruitment trip to the Kakuma camp last fall, said it's important for Nova Scotians to know that the people the province is recruiting through this new pathway are "fully qualified."
Candidates arrive as permanent residents
Part of what makes this program unique is that candidates arrive in Canada as permanent residents — not as refugees, and not on temporary work permits. They have to meet the same criteria as traditional economic immigrants, including demonstrating their experience in health care and English proficiency.
Currently, EMPP candidates have to apply under one of three existing economic immigration programs — the Provincial Nominee Program, Atlantic Immigration Program or the Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot. Once they're accepted into one of these programs, they apply for permanent residency through Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
"The standards are the same, so they're coming with the training that we need. They're coming with the qualifications that we need," said Ley.
Kamssor, who is also around 30 years old, works at a clinic in the refugee camp, run by the International Rescue Committee, six days a week. She makes roughly $135 a month, or $1,600 a year.
Kamssor was at boarding school in her home country, Sudan, when violence erupted, separating her from the majority of her family, whom she hasn't heard from during the 11 years she's been living at the Kakuma camp. She doesn't even know whether they're alive.
She's received a job offer from MacLeod Group Health Services, which operates seven nursing homes across Nova Scotia.
The jobs are permanent full-time positions with a starting salary of $36,525 at a new 96-bed nursing home in Mahone Bay, a seaside town around 85 kilometres southwest of Halifax. The home, which is expected to open later this year, is part of the provincial government's effort to alleviate the wait-list for access to long-term care and free up hospital beds for surgeries and other medical treatments.
Sabriye and Kamssor applied for the program in December 2020 and February 2021 respectively. Within two months, each had received an email saying they had been selected.
"I was very pleased with that moment," said Sabriye. "Getting this opportunity which changes my life, going to a country like Canada, which I used to dream of. Yeah, at that moment I was like I was going tomorrow."
He laughed heartily at the memory, but the reality of the wait has been difficult.
Six months after receiving that email, Sabriye had a job interview over Zoom.
He also received an offer from the MacLeod Group on Nov. 15, 2021, followed by the provincial nomination to come to Canada on Aug. 5, 2022. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada confirmed receipt of his permanent residency application on Sept. 29, 2022. CBC News has viewed all of the corresponding documentation.
IRCC says it is committed to processing "most" applications under the EMPP program within six months.
That time has already passed for Sabriye. For Kamssor, it will be up in four days.
"The process is the process and we'll take it one step at a time," said Ley. "But you know, I think it's fair to say we're close to the end now."
She also said her team is making every effort to recruit ethically and that they asked staff within the camp whether Nova Scotia would be contributing to the so-called "brain drain" or poaching of health-care workers needed there.
Michael Ikuro, who is responsible for training at the clinics in the refugee camp, confirmed to CBC News, he has no concerns about losing staff because there is no shortage. In fact, he said he has a lineup of people hoping to be trained to work in the camp's clinics and is "grateful" Canada is recruiting refugees.
"What I can even ask is to pick, to take many of them, many of them," he said in an interview at the clinic.
In March, the federal government announced it will create a new pathway this summer that will standardize eligibility criteria and streamline the process so there is only one application, allowing EMPP candidates to bypass the primary application at the provincial level, making the entire process "easier and faster."
Meanwhile, Kamssor and Sabriye wait.
Kamssor is hopeful but somewhat skeptical that her new life in Canada will become reality.
"There's nothing that will make me believe it all or know that I will go," she said. "Something might come up again."