By Jennifer O’Brien
A little over two years ago, packing a few things and their dreams, they began to arrive here in London, a world away.
They were 17 families from Burma, first transplanted to a refugee camp in Thailand where many of their children had been born and raised.
Hopes were high in London in late 2006 that the 200 newcomers would get rooted here, find jobs and succeed.
Known for optimism and hard work, the Karen refugees would be ideal, productive citizens, said those who helped.
But two years later, more than a third have headed out west to find greener pastures, their own Canadian dreams.
It’s no surprise to some observers.
Immigrants have been fleeing London as long as they’ve been arriving. Discouraged by barriers such as discrimination and language, but mainly lack of work, they go — tired of downsizing their dreams.
Many who work with immigrants to London cringe at the thought of all that talent that slips away when they leave.
“We all know there are some very sad stories out there that support the stereotypical experience of the skilled immigrant unable to use his/her education and skills appropriately,” said Anne Langille of WIL Employment.
“But there are immigrants who are working toward their ‘dream’ and are beginning to see the results. It is these moderate and, in some cases, great successes, that need profiling in order to motivate all of us because they do demonstrate that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Of more than 900 people who received job-search or employment counselling at WIL in the past, 91 per cent landed some type of work, Langille said.
“The resources are here in London for those who want to get in the game and who understand that there is no quick fix,” she said.
“We do hear from clients who are moving out west, and we are concerned that half the people we prepared brilliantly to be employed here locally will be gone.
“This is discouraging and depressing for others.”
It could also be discouraging to federal and provincial governments, which have spent millions of dollars in London in recent years to fund newcomer education, job-training and job-bridging programs.
“I am happy, I am satisfied,” says Jabeen Idros, a software tester from India who arrived in London 15 months ago. “I am doing what I hoped to do, and I have reached my goal.”
She sounds confident now, talking about her job, testing software for DRN Commerce. A year ago, she wasn’t so sure she’d made the right move, coming to Canada with her husband and their young son.
“I had my degree and computer science teaching experience . . . but after being here for two months I had sent my resume to so many places and didn’t get a reply,” she said.
Idros heard of a job readiness program at WIL and, though skeptical, she enrolled.
Afterward, she refocused her resume more along the lines Canadian employers expect.
“The way to look for a job is different here, and at WIL, I learned . . . for example, I had never tried direct calling to companies, and the format of my resume was completely different,” she said.
Shortly after completing the course, Idros got a six-month job as a quality assurance analyst at Phoenix Interactive, which led to her job now.
She said she’s heard many newcomers to Canada have great difficulty getting work.
“I feel they are not trying hard enough. I think sometimes people get into some (survival) job, but if you continue doing that you never reach your goal.”
Since 1998, the federal government has admitted nearly 12,000 economic-class immigrants destined for the London region, according to records obtained by The Free Press under information-access law.
About half of those people were admitted based on a specific skill or local need for it.
The list of occupations includes dozens of teachers, nurses, engineers and doctors.
It’s impossible to tell how many of those newcomers are working in their fields, but it’s known recent immigrants take longer to settle and economically integrate than any immigrant community before them.
Some of that’s blamed on red tape and regulatory bodies that require detailed, hard-to-get information as trivial as course descriptions and photographs of projects completed during long-past university careers.
But with help from agencies including WIL, the Cross Cultural Learner Centre and South London Neighbourhood Resource Centre, newcomers are finding jobs in London.
They may not be dream jobs, or even full time, but they offer them that crucial element that so many employers want — Canadian experience.
“It is a version of their dreams in many cases,” Langille said, acknowledging a ‘success’ to WIL is measured by employment. Period.
“We do see people making decisions to downsize their dreams — it’s a hunker-down mentality — but that is not on a forever basis,” she said. “We want their stories told.”
Their stories include the more widely known tales of former Sudanese judge Abdalla Abosharia, who drove a taxi for years in London and now works as a lawyer, and of Janet Owusu who started at Wal-Mart and now operates a popular African general store.
There’s also Joshua Olawuyi, a former Nigerian professor who teaches at Fanshawe College and heads London’s diversity and race relations advisory committee.
There was a time Doris Rodriguez wouldn’t dream of doing anything else. As a lawyer in Colombia who spoke out on human rights issues and co-ordinated a program for those facing violence and poverty, she was passionate about her work. It was dangerous, in a country overrun by guerrillas and paramilitary groups.
There were the expected threats — that the office would be bombed — but the guerrillas took things to a whole new level when they began to track down Rodriguez personally.
“They said I had to leave my job or they would kill me and my family,” she recalls.
“I knew it was true, they would. A woman at the refugee commission said Canada would be safe and beautiful, and they need lawyers,” she said. “So we came, very fast.”
She came assured she’d soon be practising law again, but learned years of unaffordable recertification and re-education would be needed.
After two years of English classes, she went to WIL for resume and job-search help.
Through a program there, she volunteered at immigration lawyer Michael Loebach’s office, where she was hired as a receptionist. Still, she dreamed of returning to law.
WIL kept her posted, and one day sent her a new dream.
The Family Networks Project, based at Merrymount Children’s Centre in partnership with the Children’s Aid Society, needed a family mentor. It sounded like a good fit for Rodriguez, a longtime advocate for the vulnerable.
She took the job, joining a diverse staff including mentors originally from Somalia, Nicaragua and Guyana, working with families and helping those considered at risk of having their children removed by child-welfare authorities.
“I love this. I am working with families and I am happy,” said Rodriguez.
Reference: The London Free Press