Ameer and his partner Romteen* have only been in Canada for about two months, but their journey here was a long one. Now that they’ve arrived, they just want to get started on their new lives — and for them that begins with one major thing: a job.
The couple left Iran and spent four and a half years in Turkey waiting to be granted refugee status. Initially they were planning to go to the U.S. but they say their case file was abruptly closed when the Trump administration came into power. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees told them they’d missed their chance, they said. But before they lost all hope, they were privately sponsored by a family in Toronto to come to Canada.
We are keeping their last names anonymous because Romteen’s family doesn’t know he is gay, and going into detail about his and Ameer’s identities could out him.
“In Canada, it’s been quite good, I have to say. But you have some sort of things that you have to sort out in Canadian working environments. So that has been a rough ride,” Romteen admitted.
Watch: Danny, a Syrian-Canadian author and public speaker, talks about his identity as an LGBTQ+ refugee. Story continues below.
Both men needed jobs in Canada, and thanks to a refugee hiring event on Oct. 31, they now have a number to choose from.
“You need a job in real life because it’s not just the money. You need a job for your being, feeling productive and involved and included in everything,” Ameer said.
The event, co-sponsored by Starbucks Canada and the Tent Partnership for Refugees, brought together approximately 550 refugees and over a dozen Canadian employers, successfully reaching its goal of at least 100 candidates receiving job offers before the day was over. Jobs ranged from engineering, marketing and financial services to customer service, manufacturing and managerial positions. Prospective hires were equally diverse in what they did in their home countries — candidates included former engineers, accountants and retail workers.
The event also featured a “Coach’s Corner” where candidates could prep for their interviews and get advice, and even refugees that left without job offers were given detailed feedback about what they need to improve on to lock down the next opportunity.
Refugees bring a lot to the table
Independent Sen. Ratna Omidvar, who heads the Refugee Jobs Agenda Roundtable , which played a major role in putting the event together, emphasized that hiring refugees makes sense for both the newcomers and employers.
“Refugees bring one personal quality to the table that I think comes from their experience, and that is resilience. You know, I met people who had been in a refugee situation for two to three years or longer, and you know, you learn to overcome one hurdle at a time,” she said.
The roundtable works to match the skills of refugees to the needs of employers to help newcomers integrate successfully, Omidvar said, and that is the kind of effort that made the hiring event so successful for jobseekers like Ameer and Romteen.
Luisa Girotto, Starbucks Canada’s public affairs vice-president, told HuffPost Canada that the company has learned how to work with government and community agencies to find diverse talent for its stores.
The coffee chain has a history of community involvement. In 2017, it pledged to hire 1,000 refugees by 2022, and they’ve already hired about 500, Girotto said. They also make it a priority to hire “opportunity youth” — young people that are not employed or in school and face barriers to employment — in Toronto and several other Canadian cities. Girotto said they used this experience to help other employers at the hiring event.
“I think Starbucks has always been what we call now diverse and inclusive. I think we always called it humanity,” she said. “I think we just spend a lot of our time taking care of people who need a fair shot.”
Girotto also said that the event was so successful that there will definitely be more in the future.
Ileana Cruz-Marden, the Tent Partnership for Refugees’ senior manager of private sector partnerships, said Canada’s high number of refugees combined with its active business community made it the perfect place for a hiring fair like this one.
Tent is a U.S. organization and was created by Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder of the multibillion-dollar Chobani yogurt company. Ulukaya, a Turkish migrant, employed many refugees when he started his company and found the experience so positive, he wanted to help other companies tap into this underutilized talent pool, Cruz-Marden said.
“We understand that businesses are not charities so we want to encourage companies to go beyond kind of the philanthropic model of providing support and really using their business models to help refugees out. And Hamdi always says kind of once a refugee gets a job, they stop being refugees,” she added.
In just 2018, Canada took in 28,100 refugees, according to the U.N., and they face unique challenges when job hunting in a new country. Along with language barriers in many cases, refugees often lose their documentation and educational credentials, and don’t know the business culture that Canadian employers look for. All the while, they’re dealing with trauma from the situations that displaced them, and have to wrangle transportation, childcare and financial resources.
“Things are done here differently. Resumes for one, are crafted differently. The language you use on paper and in interviews, you have to actually understand it’s a different way that Canadians have of understanding you, which may be very different from the country you’ve come from,” Omidvar said. “But even before you get an interview, you have to, it’s actually extremely hard to get through the door.”
These barriers are why specialized approaches to training and hiring refugees can be helpful. The job fair was successful because social agencies were able to bring skilled and prepped refugees to employers that may not have encountered them otherwise, Girotto noted, and acted as both a networking opportunity and a hiring event.
“More than half of refugees displaced globally will remain displaced for over 20 years. And so that’s why an economic integration is really important. You know getting that first job, finding a way to kind of integrate into the economy where you’ve been resettled is critical because it’s likely it’s going to remain your home country for a long time,” Cruz-Marden added.
Amira Halperin, a University of British Columbia sociology research fellow and lecturer, focuses her research on refugees and their integration.
“They really want to be Canadians. They want to integrate. They don’t want to… look back, because they know that they don’t have anywhere to go to. So they really would like to integrate to stay in Canada and therefore they like to find employment,” Halperin said, adding that many just need a helping hand to integrate.
“I think the systemic issues facing newcomers in the job market continue to exist. It’s really hard to find a job that is commensurate to your qualifications and to your experience.”
She said most refugees that flee to Canada from conflict zones, especially in the Middle East, are young — between the ages of 25 and 40 — and so were either finishing their studies or were already in a career. Many have a lot of skills to offer. But outcomes are highly dependant on a number of factors including gender, home country and whether they were sponsored privately or by the government.
“If you look at the privately sponsored refugees, this is a very big group that I spoke with and I spoke with the people that sponsor them, you know, the churches and all these people that sponsor them. So they help them and they help them to find a job. And they help them to learn English. They help them in training,” Halperin said.
More room for progress
There is still a long way to go. Omidvar says things have gotten better for refugees, and that events like the hiring fair are a good start, but there is more to be done.
“I think the systemic issues facing newcomers in the job market continue to exist. It’s really hard to find a job that is commensurate to your qualifications and to your experience,” she acknowledged. Misconceptions persist and many employers are wary of interviewing people with “foreign-sounding” names.
Anita Caroll, ACCES Employment’s vice-president of corporate and donor engagement, said some employers can exhibit unintended ignorance, even some of the companies that came to the event.
ACCES is a non-profit that aims to connect prospective employees to employers and emphasizes working with diverse communities
“[Employers say] ‘we don’t think they can speak English. We didn’t think they would be able to dress properly,’ whatever the case may be. So it was eye-opening for some employers, too, which is nice,” Caroll said.
Racism is a big issue for many refugees, too, Halperin said.
“They face problems where people say that they are not welcome in Canada. And it’s not only because people look at their credentials and say they’re not educated. This is not the reason,” she said.
“It’s easy for people to look at refugees and say that they actually are a problem. You know, that they create problems in Canada because of employment [or] take employment from others.”
Their credentials not being accepted puts another barrier in their paths, and instead of finding help through many of the organizations that pulled the hiring fair together, they end up underemployed or don’t find work at all, Halperin said.
Along with the humanitarian aspect of putting newcomers to work, it makes sense for employers, too, Cruz-Marden said. Refugees are often a company’s hardest working, most creative and most loyal employees — and also attract others who are looking to work somewhere that aligns with their personal ethics, she said.
“[Refugees] have better engagement, longer engagement, longer tenure, which is great to some employers… More importantly than that, we really need to start thinking about refugees as people who have potentially incredible work experience. They have companies back home. They ran businesses back home,” Girotto added.
“They’re here by themselves or with their families. And they want to be here and they want to stay here and they want to succeed. The last thing they want to do is be on social assistance… They want to prove themselves. They want to provide,” Caroll said.
“The majority of people we serve are people who come from other places in the world, often very, very highly accomplished, multiple degrees, speak multiple languages, and we help them to connect to opportunities here that are commensurate with their experience,” Caroll said, adding that they didn’t want people to work in “survival” jobs like driving cabs or working as cashiers if their experience was beyond that.
“This is a vulnerable community that they’re seeking to hire. That’s not something we want to shy away from.”
At the hiring fair, employers were also trained to know what to expect from the people they were interviewing.
“This is a vulnerable community that they’re seeking to hire. That’s not something we want to shy away from. We want definitely to make employers aware that you might have to change the structure of a question or maybe a kind of talk about certain experiences in a good way and make sure that they are fully understanding what the position is that they’re interviewing for,” Cruz-Marden said.
Halperin said the government can do more to help refugees integrate into the Canadian job market, like making credentials from other countries more easily transferable and doing a better job of advertising job-seekers services, like the ones provided by ACCES and other employment groups.
Fair helped couple find jobs that suited their skillsets
Prior to attending the hiring fair, Ameer said he and Romteen hadn’t had much luck applying for jobs on their own.
After the fair, they were courted with offers from Starbucks, McDonald’s, IKEA and Metro. Starbucks was their top pick, though — the pair ran a cafe together back in Iran so they can bring skills they already have to the table.
They attributed their success to the fair and its organizers for helping them overcome many of the barriers that keep newcomers out of employment.
“I think I think if the name ‘refugees’ is lifted off of a person and then they are looked at in terms of communication, language skills and work-background experience, these things are international,” Ameer noted. “It doesn’t really make a difference where you come from. [If] you have the skill, you can do the job.”
Recertifying themselves is the next step. Like many newcomers, their degrees from Iran aren’t accepted in Canada, so the couple hopes to gain the certifications they need to build careers here.
Ameer has one piece of advice for others like him and Romteen: work hard and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
“Work on your language, because once that barrier is gone, you give the confidence to the employer to look at you as a skilled person,” he said.
“I think they have to never have to give up. They have to just make connections, check places, go to employment services, immigrant services. That’s what we have been doing every day … When you need help, ask for it.