MONCTON – When Reem Fayyad found a job in her field a year after she immigrated to Moncton, it made her finally feel like she’s part of the local community. Last week, the Lebanese native became a Canadian citizen.
“It felt very special,” she said. “You feel you’re officially Canadian, that I’ve got that civic life engagement that I have always been longing for.”
But the beginning of her journey was challenging, although she had support from friends.
“The first year I felt unproductive because I didn’t work. Winter experience was harsh that year,” she said.
Fayyad shared her story at a roundtable discussion at the Atlantic Immigration Summit’s Moncton event on Thursday. Around 400 people attended, including government officials, community and business leaders, public sector officials, settlement agencies, and newcomers.
Fayyad moved to Moncton from the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) to follow her husband. He moved from France to take a job as a hematologist at the Moncton Hospital.
She realized she was ahead of many other newcomers because she already spoke English when she came and her husband was already working. She also brought a lot of experience. She holds a master’s degree in environmental health and sciences. In Lebanon and the U.A.E., she worked in government, helping shape policies and strategies for health safety and environment.
But she wanted to contribute to her new community.
When she was hired by the New Brunswick Health Council (NBHC) to fill a maternity leave position, it was a “big shift,” she said.
The NBHC hired her even though she didn’t have experience working in Canada and she had only basic French skills. It later kept her on as a research analyst.
“The attitude I received from my employer when I applied was a key factor in shaping my perceptions later on,” she said. “The fact that my employer had an open mind and they looked in my resume beyond the conventional factors, and they said, ‘ok, we can give her a chance,’ that gave me a chance to start and build myself in [the organization].”
Support from her colleagues also made her journey in Canada easier. Some even attended her citizenship ceremony with flowers.
“You feel this friendly kind of approach is very important to feel like you’re part of the community,” she said.
The role of employers in helping newcomers settle was one of the key topics being discussed at the summit.
Gerry Pond, a panellist for the summit and co-founder of technology consultancy firm Mariner Partners, said businesses are beginning to realize that they need to invest in hiring and retaining employees.
“[Businesses used to think] ‘gee I have a bunch of jobs here, I can’t fill them, so that’s somebody else’s problem.’ Now the realization is, ‘no, that’s my problem too,’ ” he said.
Around 15 per cent of Mariner’s employees are young immigrants, mostly recent graduates from local universities. Pond admits that although the turnover rate is relatively low, the company is having trouble retaining immigrants and young Canadians. Many tend to be seduced by big cities because of the cultural diversity and diaspora communities, or other reasons.
But Mariner tries to retain them by supporting those with an entrepreneurial spirit to start businesses. They will no longer be employees of Mariner, but they could become business partners or folded back into the company when their businesses are bought by Mariner, for example, Pond said.
“If they start a business here in Atlantic Canada, there seems to be a tendency to want to stay and do it here. So, it’s like an anchor,” he said.
Summit organizer Susan Chalmers-Gauvin also employs people from abroad. Many of the dancers at the Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada, which she co-founded, are newcomers.
“When we started 17 years ago, we didn’t know what we were doing. And there’s a lot of employers that are in the same position today,” she said.
The dance company now “walks” an employee through each step, beginning by managing their expectations from the interview stage.
“We make sure they understand exactly where they’re coming to. Many ballet companies are in large centres and this is not a large centre,” Chalmers-Gauvin said.
The company helps its new dancers find apartments, provides in-house English language classes in between rehearsals, and helps with setting up services like Medicare. It works with ethnocultural communities to ensure the dancers can still stay close to their culture if they ever miss home.
For Fayyad, it’s important that both immigrants and locals have a positive attitude towards each other. She also urges paying attention to the whole family of a newcomer, instead of just the principal applicant.
Immigrants need to be open to get out there, get engaged, network and learn from the community and build relationships, which opens opportunities.”
“And the community [needs to] acknowledge that immigrants are not just aliens with weird accents. They need to have a sense of awareness that [immigrants are] coming here because they trusted the community to start their lives here, so we need to trust them in return and give them opportunities.”
Although Fayyad said the event has been a great learning opportunity for attendees, it was missing the voices of locals who are resistant to immigration and the people who have chosen to leave New Brunswick.
“We need to complement the [success] stories and perspectives that we have with the stories that are outside the frame that we’re looking at now,” she said.
This is a sentiment shared by Aristide Boungou, who came to Moncton 17 years ago as a Congolese refugee. Although the event is good, he’s wary people in the room are already “converted.”
“Some of the major players are not part of the conversation. I’m talking about the young adult, the teenagers, the community-at-large,” he said. “They will be the ones to put into practice everything being said in this conversation. If they’re not part of the conversation, it’s going to be difficult to bring them along.”
He urges organizations that deal with immigrants to have first-hand advice in their leadership ranks. And he wants the conversations to go deeper.
“How do you understand an immigrant’s life when you haven’t lived it and you have no one in your leadership who’s going to give you that aspect?” he said. “These are good ways of having conversations, but let’s have more honest conversations and not hide beyond a few success stories.”
Chalmers-Gauvin said the summit is only the beginning. She will work with partners like Opportunities NB, New Brunswick Multicultural Council, economic development and innovation councils and others to conduct concrete actions after the summit.
“There’s a lot of these events and a report gets produced and it sits on a shelf,” she said. “We will create a report and ask each one [of the partners] to action specific outcomes.”
The summit will go to St. John’s in September, Charlottetown in October, and Halifax in November.