Talent, perseverance and creativity spell success for refugees in Canada

When many of us think of refugees, we think of people in desperate need, fleeing conflict or environmental catastrophe. When we welcome them to our country, we typically think we are fulfilling a humanitarian obligation.

But the benefits of welcoming refugees run both ways. When refugees find haven in Canada, they also bring a diversity of skills, talents and experience, as well as perseverance and resilience. Statistics show they are putting those skills to good use – both as sources of talent for employers and as entrepreneurs, starting up businesses and creating jobs and opportunities for themselves and others.

Throughout the month of June, the #Welcoming Economy for Refugees campaign is challenging our perception of refugees and how they can contribute to Canada’s economy. The campaign is being launched June 1 by the Refugee Jobs Agenda Roundtable, a coalition of businesses and service organizations that came together initially to help refugees in Greater Toronto and Hamilton connect with employers. The month-long bilingual campaign, which is supported by some 80 partner organizations across Canada, aims at helping employers connect with the refugee talent pool and with the practical help and resources they need to successfully recruit and retain them.

Here are four real-life stories from across Canada of refugees who have successfully put their skills, education, perseverance and creativity to work.

Originally from Afghanistan, Tooba Shahsawar arrived in Canada in 2018, armed with a bachelor’s degree in economics and development studies, a diploma in accounting, and $200 in her pocket. When she went to CIBC to open her first bank account, her experience was so pleasant that she decided she wanted to work for the organization she found so welcoming.

Tooba persevered in her goal for two years and 84 applications, landing a position with CIBC as a customer service representative in Thornhill, Ontario. Promotions followed within a year, first to Financial Services Representative and soon after to Associate Financial Advisor.

This year, Tooba was recognized as one of CIBC’s distinguished, high-profile young employees, hosting a trip to Mexico on behalf of her employer. On a day-to-day basis, Tooba’s job includes providing financial advice to newcomers and refugees. She also puts her financial knowledge to work volunteering in local
food banks and mosques, where she helps newcomers with financial advice and connecting to settlement services.

Mirhussain Walizada has found a job in his field in Canada in a remarkably short time. He came to Canada with a Bachelor’s degree English literature and a Master’s in Applied Linguistics, as well as extensive work and volunteer experience in the education field, helping teenagers achieve their educational goals. Due to the nature of his work in education, he had to flee Afghanistan in 2021, travelling first to Albania, then arriving in Canada in 2022.

Mirhussain applied to WES’s Gateway Program, which provides credential evaluations to refugees who, due to the circumstances in their home countries, arrive in Canada without full documentation of their education. With his credential evaluation in hand, and help from Jumpstart Refugee Talent, in June 2022 he found work in Calgary at East West College of Business and Technology, a fast-growing private career college that operates four campuses throughout Alberta.

Mirhussain now works as the Senior Educational Administrator, conducting meetings with coordinators and instructors, leading the committee that handles any complaints from stakeholders, and providing oversight and coordination to all four of the college’s campuses. His story shows that when talent and experience connect to the right services and supports, success can follow in a remarkably short timeframe.

Karim Alothmani saw a need and applied some ingenuity, along with his education and experience in marketing, to establish a unique new business in Vancouver.

Originally from Syria, Karim arrived in Canada in 2018 from Dubai with a degree in Advertising and Marketing and two years’ experience in his field. During the pandemic, he found that his favourite suppliers of personal care and household product refills were often overwhelmed by long queues and social distancing requirements.

Spotting a need and an opportunity, Karim and two partners launched Backspace, a low-waste mobile refillery that brings refills of personal care and household right to its customers’ doors. In the 18 months since its founding, Backspace has been delivering a range of locally sourced, all-natural products to homes in Vancouver and North Vancouver, and has recently expanded to Burnaby. The company is continually adding to its range of low-waste products, and is planning to start offering its refillery services to businesses.

Lolo Sweet and Event Limited began in 2018, when Alaa Aldaher got a request from a neighbour for custom cookies for her daughter’s birthday. Other requests for custom baking soon followed. Alaa and her husband – refugees from Syria who came to Canada 2017 saw a business opportunity, and Lolo Sweet and Event Limited was born in Mississauga, Ontario. The company has expanded to employ professional bakers and cake designers, providing unique cakes and sweets to events, family celebrations and other occasions. Alaa was a stay-at-home mum but has a talent for arts and she has a passion for design and decoration, and this is one of the reasons for her success.

For more information about the #Welcoming Economy campaign, and to connect with refugee talent and resources to help businesses recruit and retain refugee talent, contact the Roundtable.