By Mike Foster
Fedaa Khirallah was an agricultural engineer in Syria for 12 years before the shelling in Homs made it too dangerous to go to work. Along with her husband, Remon Ghassa, and three children, she left most of her belongings behind and fled, first to their cottage in a mountain village and eventually to Lebanon.
Today, Khirallah is a part-time sales associate at Hudson’s Bay. Since she and her family arrived in Canada in December 2014 as privately sponsored refugees, she has been doing everything she can to get her career back on track. She volunteers as a horticultural assistant at the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa and has begun the process of seeking recognition of her qualifications by the Ontario Institute of Agrologists and the International Credential Assessment Service of Canada.
Khirallah and Ghassa, who was an ear, nose and throat surgeon in Syria, are among about 20 newcomers from Syria, Iraq and Jordan being helped by a pilot project set up by uOttawa professor Sawsan Abdul-Majid (P.Eng), with support from uOttawa’s Career Development Centre.
Initially, the Advancing New Canadian Women in Technology (ANCWT) program was created to help refugee and immigrant women with technical and business skills gain valuable Canadian work experience. However, Abdul-Majid says it was difficult to find women from Syria who had both strong English and a technical background in engineering and the sciences. The intake was expanded to include men, and participants from other professions. Today, the program includes three civil engineers, an electrical power engineer and a pharmacist.
Abdul-Majid, who teaches photonics, is originally from Basra, Iraq, but completed her PhD in electrical engineering in Bulgaria. She wanted to do something to help new immigrants from the region where she grew up.
The four-week program at the Faculty of Engineering’s SITE building teaches entrepreneurial skills (such as developing a business model), job search, resume writing and interview skills, and an introduction to life in Ottawa. Through Abdul-Majid’s contacts with employers and with support from the CDC, the aim is to place each trainee in a three-month internship overseen by an ANCWT/uOttawa placement officer. Alternatively, participants can launch their own businesses. The hope is that their skills will not go to waste.
“Instead of working as a gas station attendant or delivering pizza, with this program they will be able to work in the careers that they love,” Abdul-Majid said.
Others involved in the program include engineering professor Hanan Anis, who has been offering her time for free, leading workshops on entrepreneurship; Marie Mitsou, a career counsellor at the CDC who has taught resumé writing; Julie Lavigne, who has a uOttawa master’s degree in educational counselling and is teaching job interview skills and Anita Shrier, CDC employer relations coordinator, who has been building links with employers.
In future, Abdul-Majid hopes to extend the program to new international students. University of Ottawa students from the Philippines, China and India have already expressed an interest.
For Khirallah, the program offers invaluable help.
“It gives me a great chance to get a job placement to get Canadian experience in my field,” said Khirallah. “This is a first step to help me get my foot in the door. I'm very optimistic.”
Moody Farag (P.Eng), admissions manager of the Professional Engineers of Ontario, the regulator that issues engineering licences in the province, will provide an information session on July 29 at 10 a.m. in the SITE building, STE 2052. To register, email Sawsan.Majid@uOttawa.ca.