‘Like starting a new life’: Refugees arrive as skilled workers under expanding pilot

By Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press

Mulham Alkhalil has been working for a high-end furniture manufacturer in Toronto since arriving in Canada last year from Syria via Libya.

The 40-year-old, whose job involves operating a computer-assisted furniture cutting and engraving machine, fled Syria in 2012 because he didn’t want to get involved in the country’s ongoing war by being drafted to compulsory military service.

He first went to Libya but said he wasn’t able to find long-term stability there after that country’s civil war escalated. In 2019, he decided to seek refuge elsewhere with his wife and three children.

Alkhalil was able to secure a job and move to Canada with his family last May thanks to a pilot program the federal government has expanded to provide refugees with a pathway to resettlement based on their job skills.

“It’s like starting a new life,” he said in a phone interview. “My children now go to school, learn English and engage in social activities … life is stable here.”

Canada launched the pilot project in 2018 to bring in 10 to 15 skilled refugees. It was extended for two more years in 2020 to admit up to 500 applicants and as of last October, more than 100 skilled refugees and their family members had arrived under the program.

In December, the Immigration Department said it would work with employers to expand the program to welcome 2,000 skilled refugees to fill specific labour shortages in high-demand sectors, including health care, skilled trades and information technology.

Federal Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said that month that Ottawa would provide $6.2 million to support organizations helping refugees apply to come to Canada as skilled workers.

Khoder El-Dassouki, the owner of Emanuele Furniture Design, said Alkhalil was the second employee he hired under the pilot program for skilled refugees.

“We cannot find the skilled labour that we’re requiring here in Canada,” he said. “We’ve been searching and we’ve been putting ads all over the country and we’re just not getting the right candidates.”

El-Dassouki, who has had his high-end custom millwork cabinets business for 35 years, said skilled workers are essential for his company.

“We’re very specific on the quality and the finesse of the products,” he said.

The pilot program – officially called the Economic Mobility Pathways Pilot – allows non-profit organizations that are partnering with the government to help skilled refugees overseas connect with employers to apply for a job.

After applicants receive a job offer, they can apply to immigrate to Canada through existing economic programs using the pilot program.

El-Dassouki said it took more than a year to process the applications of the two employees who joined his company under the pilot program.

“The duration of the application is way too long,” he said. “When we have an application, we wish to have somebody here anywhere between three to six months.”

Dana Wagner, co-founder and managing director of TalentLift Canada, a non-profit that helped Alkhalil, said refugees are traditionally able to move to Canada and other safe countries through humanitarian resettlement programs but those have limited capacity compared to the high number of refugees seeking resettlement.

The pilot program allows people who happen to be refugees and have skills that are in demand in the job market to immigrate to Canada under existing skilled immigration pathways, she said.

“The reason that we needed (this pilot program) was because skilled visa pathways were not built for people in refugee circumstances,” she said.

“Traditionally, all of Canada’s skilled immigration pathways have required a valid passport to apply. That has nothing to do with your education level, your work experience.”

The pilot began to change some requirements that had been barriers preventing refugees from applying to come to Canada as skilled workers, including documentary and financial barriers.

“If you have an expired passport from Afghanistan or Syria before (the pilot) you just were not eligible, period,” Wagner said.

“Globally, humanitarian resettlement still only supports such a small number (of refugees).”

A spokesperson for the federal Immigration Department said the pilot project aims to address labour shortages while providing solutions for refugees who have the skills and qualifications Canadian employers need.

“It is an innovative way to welcome more refugees and their families to Canada, while also helping employers fill critical labour shortages,” Michelle Carbert wrote in a statement.

The government is fine-tuning the pilot to ensure it’s meeting the needs of candidates, employers and non-governmental organizations, Carbert said.

“We will continue to work with our partners to look at more ways to make it easier for employers to bring skilled refugees and their families to Canada as economic immigrants,” Carbert said.

The United Nations estimates the number of refugees in need of resettlement will increase to more than two million this year, up from 1.47 million in 2022, which represents a 36 per cent increase.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 27, 2023.

Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press

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