Syrian refugees: New arrivals struggle to find work

Many Syrian refugees want to work, but they're still facing barriers in the early days of their transition to a new life in Canada.
Ahmad Abu Nokta arrived in Windsor with his wife and four children in mid-January as part of the new wave of government-sponsored Syrian refugees under the Liberal government. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

Ahmad Abu Nokta reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out a business card with his name printed against a bright blue-green background.

Underneath, he lists his job titles—'art, paints and decorator.' The same message is printed in Arabic.

The 54-year-old Syrian artist and painter fled the southwestern city of Daraa with his wife and four children three years ago.

"My house got bombed," he said, through a translator. "My kids are young. I was afraid for my family. We ran away from the war."

The family went to neighbouring Jordan, where they lived in a refugee camp for the next three years. Then came a chance to start over when a new Canadian government pledged to house thousands of Syrian refugees in cities across the country.

For Abu Nokta and his family, the entire process took about a month. They landed in Montreal in January 2016 and moved to Windsor two days later.

Shortly after arriving, Abu Nokta had a chance meeting with an Arab worker at a print shop, where he had his colourful business cards made. He happily hands them out wherever he can, but finding work has been a challenge.

Refugees want to work 

Many of the government-sponsored Syrian refugees still face barriers in the early weeks of their new Canadian lifestyle.

The new arrivals receive a monthly stipend to help them make ends meet, but many, like Abu Nokta, want to find jobs.

"The Canadian government has helped so much. But, I don't want to rely on its stipend," Abu Nokta said. "I want to teach my kids the value of working. The problem is language. I don't know how to get myself out there because of language."

Dr. Ahmad Chaker, with the Syrian Canadian Council, said language is an issue many refugees face when trying to find jobs. Transportation is another problem.

"The other challenge is where they live and the workplace," he told CBC News. "They don't have driving licenses. They don't have cars." 


Like Abu Nokta, if refugees - or any new immigrants - want to be self-employed, they face an additional challenge, according to Melissa Ventura, with the New Canadians' Centre for Excellence.

"One of the biggest challenges is the lack of financial resources," she told CBC News. "It's very difficult for them to get a credit card or line of credit from banks. They have to go through a lot of hoops to get those resources."

The problem is, when it comes to immigrants, self-employment generally doesn't pay. 

They don't have driving licenses. They don't have cars.- Ahmad Chaker, Syrian Canadian Council

Reza Nakhaie, a sociologist at the University of Windsor, looked into the economic benefits of self-employment for Canadian immigrants in his study published November 2015.

He said, while salary or wage work has more advantages, such as pensions and benefits, there are more advantages if newcomers are self-employed in certain fields.

"If they enter white-collar professions like medical professions, accounting, lawyers. They do very well," Nakhaie told CBC News.

But he also explained that Syrian refugees may have a good chance of succeeding in the work force, regardless of the type of employment.

"We have a government that's strongly supportive of refugees. Given the horrendous experiences that Syrian refugees experience, we have a community, to a large extent, that's very humanitarian and supporting of these people," Nakhaie said. "And, since they're members of the Arab community and the Arab community is doing well (in Windsor), there's a chance for them." 

Challenges for employers

Even though refugees have the skills to find work in places like Windsor, employers also struggle to find the workers they need.

In late January 2016, Branka Kovacevic, owner of Royal Feed Screws in Oldcastle, Ont. told CBC News she had job openings for refugees. Since then, she has not hired any newcomers because no organization has information about their skill levels.

"No one has any information," she said. "Which profile they have, do they have education in machining...any information about their education and skills. I didn't find anyone who has that information."

While organizations are still working on dealing with the refugees' essential needs, like health and housing, the Syrian Canadian Council, along with other agencies in Windsor, have started collecting data about refugees in order to match them with jobs.

The Multicultural Council is putting together a list of employment providers who specialize in finding jobs for people in the region.

Jelena Payne, the city's community development and health commissioner, told CBC News in an email, "The newcomers will also be provided language classes and skills assessment over the next several months."

Abu Nokta is taking advantage of those opportunities. He will be attending his first English class next week to try and bolster his job prospects.

"I would even do the first few jobs for free just to get work and get contacts," he told CBC News. "As a painter, I need to practice, so I would even do the first few for free. I would love to." 


As of February 18, 2016: 

  • 519: Government sponsored refugees in Windsor
  • 78: Privately sponsored refugees in Windsor
  • 12: Blended sponsored (privately funded for 6 months, government funded for 6 months) in Windsor
  • $25,000/family: Subsidy for GSRs (includes one-time start-up payment and monthly income support for food, shelter, transportation) 
  • Amount varies by family size
  • Amount is for up to a year, or until self-sufficient, whichever comes first 
  • Private sponsors provide financial, emotional support for duration of sponsorship, including housing, clothing, food 
  • Most private sponsorships last for one year, but some refugees may be eligible for help from sponsors for up to three years