Newcomers to Kingston Share Their Experiences with Employment, Racism, and Coming to Canada

Rebecca Frost, Chief of Investigative Journalism

19 May 2019

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Last year, around 300 000 people arrived in Canada as permanent residents. Some came to Canada as economic immigrants. They applied to become permanent residents and were assessed based on the skills and education they would bring with them. Others came as refugees, fleeing persecution and violence in their home countries. Every person who comes to Canada brings a unique story with them. Some of them bring those stories right here to Kingston. The Observer sat down with three Kingstonians who have recently immigrated to Canada to hear their stories.

Abhishek Sharma came to Kingston in 2016. He is originally from India, where he worked as a civil engineer. Upon arriving, Abhishek, who goes by AK for short, did his master’s degree in civil engineering at Queen’s. He has since started working in Kingston. He lives here with his wife and young daughter. He says he likes Kingston. He likes small cities.

We also spoke with Jamal Saeed and Rufaida Alkhabaz, a married couple originally from Syria. They also arrived in 2016. They came to Canada as refugees. They left because of the war. When describing why they left, Rufaida said:

“It was very hard, you know, it’s war. We used to lack everyday needs. We were threatened every day. Our kids were threatened because their school was very far away from our house so they had to go through many military checkpoints. They have seen very awful stuff at the checkpoints, people being dragged on the floor, hit by the military soldiers. Every now and then, they would block the roads so we couldn’t get into the centre of the city. We lived for a period of time when we were besieged by military forces, so we wouldn’t have any bread, food anything. In addition to all that, we went without power, sometimes without water, for days. It happened that we didn’t have water for 20 days, so we had to go to one of our friend’s house to shower. So it was difficult, not to mention the bombing. You know, its war.”

Rufaida, Jamal, and their two sons left Syria in 2014. They had a contact in Dubai who could secure jobs for them. When they got confirmation that they could earn a living in Dubai, they left Syria. It took them three months to reach Dubai from Syria. They lived in Dubai for about a year and a half before they came to Canada.

They ended up in Canada due to Jamal’s work as a writer. He was held as a political prisoner for 12 years in the 1980s and 90s for writing against the regime.

While they were living in Dubai, Jamal and Rufaida were contacted by a Norwegian NGO called International Cities of Refugees Network (ICORN) that protects writers all over the world. Through ICORN, they learned that the Kingston Writers Refugee Committee was looking to sponsor a writer to come to Canada. Jamal’s story fit the bill.

They landed at Pearson Airport in Toronto on December 28th, 2016.

Abhishek had a different story. Although Abhishek and his family are settled in Kingston now, getting here was a long process. He first applied to come to Canada in 2010, but Canada was not accepting civil engineers that year. In 2013, Canada was accepting 300 civil engineers world wide, but Abhishek’s application was sent back due to incomplete forms. In 2014, the same year Jamal and Rufaida left Syria with their family, he applied again and in 2015, he got his permanent residency, meaning he could move to Canada.

Abhishek applied through the skilled worker program, meaning that his application was assessed based on how easily he could establish himself economically in Canada. The application process is not for the faint of heart. Abhishek needed to score 67 points out of a 100-point scale for his application to be considered. There were points for things like education, language skills, and even age. He went through rigorous English language testing. They checked his work history and experience. Abhishek explained that those qualifications were not taken at face value. They were assessed to see how they compared to Canadian credentials.  He was also required to have enough money saved up to sustain a family of two for 6 months. There were a lot of boxes to check.

He arrived in Kingston in September of 2016, a few weeks into the fall semester of his master’s program. He started his studies and began searching for a house to rent. 

He knew that it would be difficult to secure a job, so he decided to enroll in a master’s program so that, even if he did not have a job after a year, he would have at least gained a degree.

Photo courtesy of Abhishek Sharma

Photo courtesy of Abhishek Sharma

Despite the different paths they took to Canada, Abhishek, Jamal, and Rufaida’s stories had a lot in common.

Getting a job in Canada as a newcomer can be very difficult. This is something everyone we spoke to had experienced. As Abhishek described “When you land in a country, you don’t have any job, you don’t have any connections, you don’t have any references. So you just come here with empty hands. If you don’t have references, then how do you call someone, even to meet someone for a job or something like that”. On top of that, Abhishek said that in his experience, Canadian employers tend to want Canadian credentials. While he did receive help with formatting his resume and looking for jobs in Canada from KEYS Job Centre in Kingston, he said it can be hard to change that mindset among employers.

Rufaida echoed the sentiment. When asked what the most difficult part of moving to Canada was, she answered:

“From my perspective as a newcomer, it is finding a job. Our credentials, we both graduated from Damascus University in English literature, we came and brought our English with us, so we didn’t have the barrier, that I think is the biggest for newcomers, but Jamal doesn’t have a job up until now. I had a job comparatively early, but Jamal has no job, even though we were told that, with your qualifications, you will get a job like that, the expectation didn’t meet the reality. This is the most difficult thing I think. I work at KEYS job centre helping newcomer families, and I can say that this is the most difficult part. Some of them are highly educated, but their credentials don’t get recognized.”

From my conversations with Abhishek, Jamal, and Rufaida, it was obvious that starting over and not having your credentials recognized can be very frustrating and is a major barrier faced by many newcomers. When I spoke with her, Rufaida said,

“We feel like our dreams are collapsed. We have experience, we have our credentials, we have worked for years to get our licences, and here it means nothing. You need to start from under zero. You are a youth and are starting your life, you have no family, you have nothing to worry about, but now we have families we have kids, we have a lot of responsibilities. We need to rebuild our skills from under zero, we need to learn totally new things. At the same time, we need to adapt ourselves to the language, to the culture, to the community, to the system, to everything, new everything. This is very challenging.”

In addition to difficulties in the job market, everyone I interviewed described facing outright discrimination, both in the media and in person.

Seeing hateful rhetoric in the news and on social media is obviously an upsetting experience. As Abhishek told me in our interview:

“I am too into the politics now in Canada because I feel so bad when I see people are so judgemental against immigrants, like everyone was an immigrant to this country at some point in time. [You hear people saying], ‘these people are taking jobs’, ‘these people are criminals’, ‘they don’t know anything’, ‘they don’t want to integrate into our society’. There a lot of things which I hear in the news in the political parties and on twitter and in the mainstream media. People are commenting that kind of hatred.”

Abhishek said that he believes people say these things because no one has explained to them how immigration works. He highlighted the fact that all people coming to Canada have their records sent to the US for a criminal background check. He also noted that people who comment these things don’t seem to be aware of the contributions immigrants make. He says,

“Nobody has explained to them how the system works. There is a guy who was tested for his education, language ability, and went through criminal checks. He is also bringing money with him so he is not on social assistance right away. People saying that immigrants are taking social security and immigrants are taking jobs, someone should tell them the process. Imagine a person who came to Canada with a Bachelor of Engineering without a single taxpayer dollar. We pay all the fees when we apply. If someone is ready for a job, with no tax dollars spent, that person is ready to start in the economy. And Canada needs immigrants, if you see the statistics, the aging population base. To keep the pensions and health system up for them, there should be a larger base of the younger population. If someone in the mainstream media tells them what the selection process is like, then I think that perception might change.”

Rufaida and Jamal have also experienced discrimination. Only weeks after they arrived in Canada, they were on the bus in Kingston when they witnessed ab uglier side of Canada. Rufaida tells the story:

“We were on a bus and there was a guy sitting in front of us and he started yelling and shouting at us. Saying all these all bad words about newcomers: ‘They are here to take our jobs, they are here to take our taxes’. All that stuff. My English wasn’t good enough at the time to understand each single word, but he was looking at us aggressively and he was addressing us. He was talking to a woman beside him but it was obvious that he was talking about us. I was like ‘ahh on my god here we go’ I started to feel like ‘are we in the right place, was our decision to come to Canada the right thing to do?’ We didn’t know at the time that we have the right to pick up the phone and call 911 and say we are being abused. But people on the bus started to stop him and tell him that it is inappropriate to say that, and to stop it, and he was rude to all of them. You know the Trumpism trend, some people repeat his thoughts. But people started to apologize and say “we are the Canadians not like that, please don’t listen to him, don’t care” so that was nice but it was still hard.”

These are some of the most difficult parts of being an immigrant or refugee in Kingston. There are many good parts. Rufaida said,

“I just want to say that Kingston is a really great city to start your life, especially for us, elders. You know, it may not be the right place for the youth because its small, so they may not have as many opportunities, but for us it is a nice place. People here are really, really warm.”

Abhishek also says that he likes Kingston and that Canada is a good place to live in and that people are overall very nice.

Despite these positive aspects, barriers to employment, racism, and discrimination remain realities for newcomers in the Kingston community.