Ottawa

These Syrian refugees are giving their careers a makeover

Thirteen Syrian refugees are taking part in a new program in Ottawa that allows them to imagine a future as salon owners and make-up artists.

13 women completed the first rotation of the intro to esthetics program

From Syria, to Ottawa makeup counters and nail salons,13 Syrian refugees are preparing to fulfill a lifelong dream. 4:21

Hiba Haj Moussa carefully flattens a crumpled Syrian ID paper onto a manicure table, curling back a small colour photo stapled to the corner.

Now 23 years old, Haj Moussa says she keeps the image of herself at seven as a reminder of how different her life is now.

"It's changed 100 per cent," she said. "When I left, because [of] the war [in] Syria, I moved to Lebanon. They didn't allow me to study, like, high school."

"But when I came to Canada, I start to get my dream."

That dream? To open her own beauty salon.

And thanks to a new program run by the Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre and Algonquin College, she's taking her first steps toward that goal.

Hiba Haj Moussa holds a registration paper for school from when she was seven years old and living in Syria. Now in Canada, Haj Moussa has dreams of following in her mother's footsteps and opening her own salon. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

'Very inspiring'

Over the past 10 weeks, Haj Moussa and 12 other Syrian refugees have spent weekends learning different techniques for hair removal, makeup, manicures and pedicures.

"It's a little more focused and specialized," said Natasha Wood, an Algonquin College professor and coordinator of the condensed esthetics program.

She says the students have shown an impressive ability to pick up new skills.

"They have truly been very inspiring. To see them learn so quickly, I am so, so proud of them."

Natasha Wood, a coordinator at Algonquin College, says these students were inspiring. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

An overwhelming response

The program was the brainchild of Snezana Minic, the languages programs manager at the Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre.

Over the past several years, Minic has helped an influx of Syrian refugees learn English.

"It takes time to improve your language," she said. "I was thinking, 'When in the world are they going to be ready for a job market?'"

After watching her students bring in delicious homemade food lesson after lesson, she got her first big idea — funding culinary classes for newcomers to Canada.

Soon, refugees were asking about other courses.

When Minic proposed the introductory esthetics course, she says the response was overwhelming. She had enough students to fill two cohorts — and there's still a waitlist.

Refugees helping refugees

For Minic, the project is personal.

"Twenty-five years ago [I came] from a very similar situation, like the Syrians, from a war-torn country — former Yugoslavia," Minic said.

"I didn't have [someone in my position] at that time to think what would help me."

Snezana Minic came to Canada from the former Yugoslavia as a refugee 25 years ago. Now, as the languages programs manager at the Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre, she's committed to making the transition for other newcomers easier. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

While Minic's language competency helped her land on her feet in Canada, her husband — a journalist by trade — had a difficult time.

Eventually, he built a new career in IT.

"You really have to have someone to at least give you an idea what you are capable of doing. And again, if there are forces behind you that will help you and show you how far you can go, everything is possible," she said.

Overcoming change

The first three rotations of the esthetics course are fully funded through Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, and Minic believes there will be support for courses in future years.

All of the students have expressed intense gratitude to the people behind the course, but say they still face challenges.

Haj Moussa said she's given up her days off. She spends Saturdays and Sundays in the classroom as part of the program, then studies weekday mornings and early afternoons before heading off to her job at the Rideau Centre.

"But I have goals," she said. "Like, I want it. I never give up." 

Marseil Alsulaiman brought this oud to Canada and plays it when she wants to think about her family back in Syria. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

Marseil Alulaiman, another student in the program, has been working in a restaurant since three months after her arrival in Canada.

"It's not my future and not myself," she said. "It's not me."

Alulaiman touched down in Canada with her son and husband three years ago — in the middle of winter. That moment and the years that followed were difficult.

"First two years, it was very hard for us."

When she needs time to herself, she turns to music.

Playing her oud, a stringed instrument she brought from Syria, allows her to remember the time she spent singing with her late father.

If there are forces behind you that will help you and show you how far you can go, everything is possible.- Snezana Minic, Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre

"In this moment, you can feel like I am not here. And I can hear them, and I can sing with them. I can remember everything" she said, her voice breaking and tears beginning to fall.

"My sisters, my parents, my friends, my home. I am happy, yes, here. But I am missing all of them."

This course has allowed her to strive for something beyond simple survival: a career.