Struggling for Recognition
Finding meaningful work in Canada is especially challenging for refugees
As of 2013, more than four in five Canadians believed multiculturalism was a collectively shared value, according to Statistics Canada. It is seen as part of the fabric of our Canadian identity. But it is all too familiar to meet an immigrant who is working well below what their capabilities are as a professional, or to hear about a family of refugees who are forced to spend almost a year looking for work.
Speaking with several refugees and immigrants, I heard stories about the disconnect between how life in Canada was presented to them before they immigrated and the reality of it afterwards. This has harmful implications for the lives of well-meaning people coming to Canada.
Professor Isabella Krysa studied employment barriers for immigrants while writing her dissertation The Construction of the ‘Immigrant’ in Canada’s Immigration Discourse - A Foucauldian Critical Discourse Analysis through Postcolonial Lenses. Krysa writes that the Canadian notion of work experience echos “west is the best” thinking, and the result is a problem of “brain waste”—where immigrants often end up employed in positions below their qualifications in the Canadian economy.
I also spoke with medical professionals, students, and people in commercial industries. Too often you hear from people who were doctors, engineers or business owners before they moved here, but were unable to wade through the onslaught of paperwork and examinations, and in many cases, the requirement to study their field all over again.
The first person I spoke with in starting this article was Layla Rahmeh, a woman who came to Canada from Syria with her daughter three and a half years ago for what she thought would be a temporary visit.
Rahmeh and her daughter had been living in Syria during the first year-and-a-half of the civil war. At the time, most of the fighting was happening in the north or south of the country, so they saw themselves as safe living in Damascus. When they planned a trip to Canada, they had anticipated returning to Damascus, but the area became unsafe and they were forced to stay and seek asylum in Canada.
With her daughter in high school at the time, Rahmeh had to support her family on her own. It took her five months to obtain a work permit. After that it took another five months to find a job.
Rahmeh has an undergraduate degree in pharmacy and a graduate degree in human resources, yet her first Canadian job was part-time at Sears. She had applied for other jobs matching her education level and employment history, but they all told her the same thing: she needed Canadian work experience.
Another Syrian refugee Tareq came to Canada from Syria in December of 2015. He came over as part of the Canadian initiative to bring more Syrian refugees into the country following the election of the Liberal government in October 2015. He came to Canada with plans to work in healthcare, which was his focus in Syria.
He had been studying medicine at university in Syria since 2009, focusing on surgery. Medical programs in Syria take six years to complete and he had finished four before leaving to find safety in Lebanon. When he arrived in Canada, Dalhousie’s medical school informed him that he needed a completed undergraduate degree to apply, and his Syrian education was not sufficient.
Tareq is currently pursuing his education in Canada. St. Francis Xavier University has accepted his education in Syria as the first half of an undergraduate degree and he will graduate with a major in biology in two years. He said he is grateful that he ended up studying at the undergraduate level in Canada first because it is very different from what he was doing in Syria.
“Maybe if I had started medical school first, I would not do so well,” He said. Adding that learning academic English is better at the undergraduate level than it would have been in medical school.
Medical professionals unable to practice
It’s hard for international medical graduates to get into the Canadian residency program. Areas that are considered rural often have different processes, which can make it easier for someone that is an international medical graduate to get licensed. This is by design, to satisfy the rural demand for doctors, however, it is still difficult.
One woman I spoke with has been unable to break into the residency program in Nova Scotia. She finds it very difficult to pursue medicine when it is impossible for her to practice here. She has taken work at Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS) as an international medical graduate bridging coordinator. There she works with a program that connects people with options to become practitioners in Canada.
Getting exposure to clinical practice in Nova Scotia is the main challenge. She thought it would be easier to pass the exams and find a residency. It is difficult for her to justify the cost when the chances of success are so low.
It’s similar for immigrants and refugees with dentistry training. One woman from Iran, who wished to remain anonymous, saw advertising in 1997 that said Canada had a special need for dentists. The ads convinced her to apply to immigrate with her family in 1997 but her application was rejected.
In 2003, she applied a second time and, after several years wait, received a visa. Once she was in Canada, there were three exams she had to pass to be certified as a clinical dentist—which she said were expensive and required a significant wait time between exams.
Some organizations are starting to take notice. For example, Engineers Nova Scotia now examines each applicant on a case to case basis, instead of filtering based their country of origin.
These stories show the difficulties for immigrants and refugees looking for work in Canada—even after they are admitted to the country. This is hard on their families, and also economically draining when their skills are not properly utilized. Navdeep Bains, Federal Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development has called for an increase in the number of immigrants Canada takes. The Canadian Press reported that he is asking the business community and the public to view “immigration not as a social issue, but as a key driver of economic growth.”