Centre uses volunteers to counsel professionals who cannot find work after arriving in Canada

Toronto Star
August 12, 2009

Lesley Ciarula Taylor

She left a high-powered job coordinating the government’s anti-drug campaigns in Colombia, but Raquel Ferrer figures in Toronto she is earning her “master’s degree in passion.

That passion is helping newcomers understand and adjust to their new status, one that often swaps professionalism for poverty.

“When you work with a big problem, you have to be creative,” Ferrer says, her fingers snapping with her thirst for change.

Change is what her employer, the Mennonite New Life Centre, is embracing. An activist community agency for refugees and immigrants, the centre on Queen St. E. started new methods last year to “go beyond service delivery,” says Executive Director Tanya Chute Molina.

The centre’s mental health mentoring program launched with two internationally trained psychologists who volunteered their time and training to counsel new immigrants. The centre got the benefit of the psychologists’ expertise; the psychologists got Canadian experience, which they need to find jobs.

The program, which uses professionals who are immigrants to help other immigrants, has just expanded to include mentoring for engineers and journalists.

Ferrer, too, came in as a volunteer to the mental health program and is now one of eight part-time paid counsellors from various Latin American countries.

They deal with couples cracking under the stress of adjusting to a new culture and poisoned dreams, with women who realize they no longer have to suffer abuse quietly, with children lost between two worlds.

“We bring skills and education. We change all of our lives. Immigrants are like a container that is broken,” Ferrer says. “When you come here, you organize a new life but the container is never the same again.”

The centre is also using innovative new Canadian research released in May about immigrants and work in their programs.

The three-year study by a partnership of academic researchers examined the lives of 300 Latin American and English-speaking Caribbean immigrants in Greater Toronto.

Rejecting the myth that immigrants start poor and make their lives better, the study found the first jobs newcomers here get are likely to dictate their future. Those who started with precarious part-time or contract jobs with no security were more likely to stay in them.

The centre has now adapted the three-year study’s findings into practical workshops and is augmenting them with its own focus groups of immigrant engineers, journalists and mental health workers. The idea is to create the centre’s own bank of research, which can be used to support advocacy for policies designed to help newcomers become part of Canadian society.

Given her manager’s background and psychologist’s training, Ferrer also has her eye on the bigger picture of how immigrants are treated.

“We need change in Canada. The refugee claim (process) has to be not as long.” Her own took 3 1/2 of the four years she has been here.

Refugees, she says, get a social insurance number that starts with a 9, a red flag to many employers. “They say, `I can’t help you.'”

Also, language training tends to start with a basic “See Spot run” program. “ESL is too long. Professionals need to learn professional English.”

And settlement workshops focus too much on basic data such as preparing resumés, she says.

“I did 10 kinds of resumés. I sent out 90 resumés. I got five interviews.”

Reference: Toronto Star