When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Wafa Aljabiri knew she and her family had to get out of the country as fast as they could.
“It was not safe,” she said. “We knew we had to leave for the sake of our family and children.”
The Baghdad native, along with her husband and three kids, fled during the war to Oman on the Arabian Peninsula, where they lived for seven years. Aljabiri said the stay in Oman was good for both her career and her husband’s. The salary and benefits were high and they paid no taxes. But they were unable to cement their place within the country, and the threat of being sent back to war-ravaged Iraq loomed large.
“It was not stable there either; we couldn’t get permanent resident status,” Aljabiri said. “We just got work permits, so we did not know our future or if we would have to leave.”
Aljabiri and her husband then decided to move to Canada. Aljabiri, who has a degree in computer science from the University of Baghdad, and her husband, who has a master’s degree in computer science, felt like Canada would offer them the best chance at starting a new life – “because it is safe,” she said. “Because Canada is a developed country [with] good education and health care. … [We came] to provide a better education and future for ourselves and our kids.”
While her husband found work in his profession after a few months of living in Surrey, Aljabiri’s initial job searches fell short.
A recent report by the City of Surrey’s Local Immigration Partnership (LIP), titled the Labour Market Integration Research Project, found that Aljabiri is not alone when it comes to immigrant job search struggles. Human resources firm Human Capital Strategies, which carried out in-depth interviews and focus groups with dozens of new immigrants to Surrey, found that while the majority had hoped to carry on with the careers they had started in their home country, there was little opportunity to do so upon arriving in Canada.
While her employment search fell flat, Aljabiri turned her attention elsewhere to help herself properly integrate into the culture.
“I focused on being an active member in the community by volunteering in many organizations that provide such services, including the Immigrant Advisory Roundtable and Social Policy Advisory Committee for the City of Surrey.”
Aljabiri started her own business, called Leadership Education Consulting Inc., which helps connect international students with Canadian universities. She’s also taken a number of courses at Langara College and Vancouver Community College to help sharpen her English skills and upgrade some of her training. This May, she will celebrate three years of living in Canada. She is now on the path to citizenship and working in an entirely new field.
“Immigration represents the start of a new phase of life in a new country. Being far away from family and friends was not easy. Feeling isolated in the first few weeks, trying to start a new life, you do not know if what you are doing will work or not.”
She said venturing into a new career by starting her own company was something that might have been more difficult in the two countries she previously lived in.
“I started my own business to work for myself and have the financial freedom to do what I want, when I want, which is taking care of my family, volunteering and giving back to my community.”
Aljabiri also now sits on the Surrey Immigrant Advisory Roundtable, which is part of the LIP. The organization’s recent survey offered an unprecedented snapshot into the lives of recent transplants to the city and the many challenges they face.
Surrey receives roughly 7,000 new immigrants and 250 refugees every year. The city is expected to welcome approximately 170,000 additional citizens by 2035, which would make it the largest municipality in the province.
But the report outlined a troubling fact many in the community have been warning about for years: finding steady work is tough, and integrating into Canadian society is even tougher.
“There is a measurable gap between the expected and actual quality of life for many immigrants when faced with the challenge of finding meaningful, sustainable employment based on their experience and credentials,” stated the report. “Second-generation Canadians report less satisfaction with their quality of life compared to their first-generation parents.”
When surveyed, immigrants said a common employment barrier was an employer perception that hiring immigrants is “risky.”
Kerry Jothen, chief executive officer and principal at Human Capital Strategies, said the advantage of hiring immigrants is clear to business owners who have done so.
“Some businesses may perceive barriers and risks that may not exist as much in reality,” Jothen said. “Most businesses I have dealt with that have hired immigrants have spoken mostly of positive experiences. At the same time, they do not sugar-coat the reality that some immigrants will have more challenges because of a lack of English skills, a lack of understanding of the Canadian work culture, unrecognized foreign credentials or training.”
Meanwhile the city’s labour force, like those of many across the country, is expected to shrink due to difficulties in replacing retired workers. Surrey will create an additional 125,000 positions by 2041, but by 2022 there will be a labour shortage of 42,250 “unfillable jobs” within the city if current trends continue, the study says. It also notes that “immigrants are expected to fill one-third of projected job openings in B.C. between now and 2022.”
Anita Huberman, chief executive officer of the Surrey Board of Trade and co-chairwoman of LIP, said the issue is clear.
“Canada’s population is declining, and we need to address the coming skills shortage,” she said. “It just kind of boggles my mind when we’re facing a skills shortage that we cannot find a mechanism by which we can expedite and recognize credentials [of immigrants] or upgrade training expediently.” •