Project helps Syrian refugees in Toronto jumpstart careers

Monday is World Refugee Day, an opportunity to celebrate initatives like The Refugee Career Jumpstart Project. It's the brainchild of three Syrian-Canadians who wanted to help their fellow Syrians when they began arriving late last year.

On World Refugee Day, Syrian-Canadians in Toronto reflect on what they're doing to help newcomers

Syrian refugee Karina Kheshvajian on what being accepted into Ryerson University means to her

6 years ago
Duration 0:45
Karina Kheshvajian is a Syrian refugee who was recently accepted into Ryerson University’s business program. She's a student at the Study English in Canada language academy in mid-town Toronto. 0:45

Last week, Syrian refugee Karina Kheshvajian got the news she'd been hoping for — she'd been accepted into Ryerson University's business program.

"Finally! I just received an email that I passed my English exam and I'm so happy about it," she said during a classroom break at the Study English in Canada (SEC) language academy in mid-town Toronto.

English is a key employment barrier facing Toronto's Syrian newcomers. Karina was studying economics at Aleppo University, when the fighting broke out. Even though she's a more fluent English speaker than most of the recent arrivals, her written English wasn't at the level required for writing a university essay.

For the past two months, Kheshvajian has been learning to write essays and prepare presentations at SEC, one of three language academies in Toronto to offer scholarships to Syrian refugees — part of the Refugee Career Jumpstart Project (RCJP).

The Jumpstart project is the brainchild of three close friends, all Syrian-Canadians who wanted to help their fellow Syrians when they began arriving by the hundreds in December of 2015, part of the Liberal government's pledge to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the following spring.

At first Mustafa Alio, Bassel Ramli, and Omar Salaymeh pledged they would each help five refugees find jobs.

Today, they've compiled job-skill profiles for 350 Syrian refugees and are planning to add hundreds more by the end of the year. Ramli laughs, remembering their original goal.

"That first day, we went to the hotels where the refugees were staying," he said. It was 11:00 in the morning.  "We thought we'd be there for a couple of hours.  By the time we left, it was 11 at night."

The next few months would be a whirlwind of interviewing Syrian newcomers as the project threatened to take over every spare waking moment.

A surprising percentage of the newcomers — 60 to 70 per cent — were skilled construction workers, a perfect fit for Toronto's construction boom, combined with its chronic shortage of skilled trades. There were also refugees with professional or academic backgrounds, including accountants, engineers, teachers, nurses, pharmacists and doctors .

Salaymeh, whose day job is building a procurement app for a high-tech start-up based in Kitchener, brought an engineer's discipline to the project.

"I'm a mechanical engineer by training, so I was very strict — meticulous about managing the job data and making sure it's very searchable."

The three friends, now with three additional board members, quickly realized the potential of the project.  

"So whenever someone says we need an engineer," says Salahmeh, "we have to be very quick in being able to search data."

Another lucky break was meeting Senator Ratna Omidvar, executive director of the Global Diversity Exchange. She connected the Jumpstart members with representatives from all three levels of government, 30 corporations, including all five major banks, agencies such as Access Employment and BILD Toronto, as well as a development industry group and a construction union.

Omidvar also connected them with COSTI, the agency responsible for settling Syrian newcomers in the GTA.

A growing roundtable met to set goals — a roadmap to optimize the job profiles; a series of events to prepare refugees for job interviews; developing a construction strategy, and a workshop to persuade Syrian women, many of whom spoke only Arabic, that they too could start careers in Canada.

The language barrier was the most formidable problem, so organizers decided to partner with private language academies which offer intensive, job-focused courses for people with intermediate language skills. Three language academies with schools across Canada, PGIC, SEC and KGIC, offered 40 scholarships worth $400,000 to refugees who with only a few months of language training, could be ready to work or study at university.

Michal Saba, a former professor of environmental science at Tishreen University in Lattakia, Syria, is one of 20 newcomers to qualify for the scholarship so far, along with Kheshvajian.  

Michel Saba, who taught environmental science in Syria, dreams of working with the City of Toronto in water research. (CBC)

"Language is a first key to enter any society," says Saba, "to express yourself."  As a professor in Syria, he tried to instill in his students a respect for the interdependence of all species.  "Every creature has a role," he says.

Much the same, he says, is true of Syrian newcomers in Toronto.  

"We have a role, and we can't expect everything from the others. We have to be engaged in the action."

For the co-founders of the Jumpstart Project, the most urgent need right now is to find new ways to tackle language barriers, from on-the-job language training to persuading the more than 40 other language academies in Toronto to offer scholarships for refugees.

The modest goal with which they began, of finding jobs for five refugees each, doesn't appear to have many limits.

"We thought of that when we chose a name for the project," says Mustafa Alio. "That's why we didn't call it the Syrian Refugee Jumpstart Project. This can be an employment model for all refugees to Canada."

But for now, the board members are reaching the limits of their volunteer capacity. There are fifteen volunteers, and the group has received funding of close to $50,000 from private donors, as well as the TD Bank and the federal government.

Alio is hoping for more funding from the project's other banking and corporate partners — enough for two full-time employees.

For Kheshvajian, looking forward to resuming her economics studies at Ryerson University in the fall, the employment project is a lifesaver.  Within months of arriving in Toronto, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and her father, whose English is far more rudimentary than hers, is barely able to cover the family's expenses with his low-paying job.  As the eldest sibling, Kheshvajian feels the pressure to contribute financially.

More than a year ago, when her family fled Aleppo for Lebanon, she couldn't imagine her future because her father couldn't afford the cost of tuition in Lebanon. She even considered returning to Syria to finish her fourth year at Aleppo University, but the bombing was getting worse.

"From the first day I came to Canada, it was my only wish," she says, "to go back and focus on my school."


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