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Syrian refugee helps others get a jumpstart in Canada

VIVIEN FELLEGI

 

Mustafa Alio is a co-founder of the Refugee Career Jumpstart Project in  Canada

 

Syrian-born Mustafa Alio has always followed his convictions. His friends thought the 23-year-old was crazy when he decided to leave his home country in 2007. He was the district manager for Syria’s largest telecommunications company, Syriatel, owned a dream apartment and drove a luxury car paid for by his employer. But the ambitious entrepreneur wasn’t satisfied resting on his laurels. “I had reached my limit professionally and wanted to challenge myself,” he says. So, he set out to earn an MBA from a Western university.

But that wasn’t in the cards. After arriving in Toronto, Alio realized that he couldn’t afford the steep fees for an MBA program. So, after mastering English, he enrolled at George Brown College, supporting himself by mopping floors during the night shift at a shawarma restaurant.  “It was hard,” he says. Customers from nearby nightclubs sometimes came in drunk, spewing hateful remarks such as “Do you have a camelback home?”

The exhausting schedule left only four hours to sleep most nights and no time for a social life. “It was draining, but I was laser-focused on my goal of success — that made a good distraction from the fatigue,” he says.

Those challenging days molded Alio’s character. “Today, if I go through a tough situation, I’m pretty good at looking at myself objectively, so I think instead of reacting.”

Alio’s drive paid off. In a few years, he earned a postgraduate degree in marketing and financial management and was hired by the Toronto Dominion Bank. Alio was elated by the prospect of meaningful employment. “A career isn’t just about money; it’s the daily feeling of contribution and growth,” he says.

 

Giving refugees a jumpstart

 

Alio wanted to give that same sense of empowerment to the Syrian refugees pouring into Canada in December 2015. He and his friends rushed to greet the Ontario newcomers at the Toronto Plaza Hotel where they were initially housed. He soon realized that employment was one of their biggest challenges. So Alio and two buddies banded together to found the Refugee Career Jumpstart Project, a non-profit organization bridging the gap between the skill sets of the Syrians and the Canadian job market. The group compiles a profile of transferrable skills for each newcomer, entering this information into a database. Later volunteers refer them to language training, educational bridging programs, apprenticeships, and possible job matches. “If I’m able to help them contribute through their job, I’ll give them the main tool that will make them feel human again,” says Alio. Within less than a year, the group expanded its client base to include all refugees. Since its launch, Refugee Career Jumpstart Project has served more than 600 clients and helped more than 140 of them find full-time jobs. The organization was even nominated for the Nansen Refugee Award, the highest prize given by the UNHCR for an organization or individuals working with refugees.

 

Challenges of refugee settlement

 

But, despite his achievements, Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada failed to approve Alio’s application for permanent residency in 2012; he was two points shy of the minimum requirement. The rejection stung. “After falling in love with Canada and contributing to its society, it seemed unfair to get nothing back,” he says. Alio was running out of options. He could no longer return to Syria since he had received death threats after criticizing his country’s tyrant Assad. So, he filed for refugee status. Alio had no idea what this new identity would entail. While Canadians extended a warm welcome to the Syrians initially, their compassion declined alongside the demands on their time. “Many families who sponsored refugees never expected how tough their settlement would be,” says Alio. Simultaneously, there has been a rising anti-refugee sentiment worldwide.

As Alio waited for years for an answer to his claim for asylum, he sensed a mounting hostility toward refugees. While immigrants were thought to contribute to their adopted country, refugees were viewed as a burden or, worse, a security threat. Not wanting to attract negative assumptions, Alio hid his status even from his clients. But though his own future was uncertain, he continued improving the lives of his refugee clients. In 2016, Refugee Career Jumpstart Project received funding from corporate sponsors, and Alio quit his job to work there full time. As a result of Alio’s success with Refugee Jumpstart, he was invited to join the Network for Refugee Voices, an umbrella organization of refugee leaders and refugee-led organizations that advocate for refugee involvement in policy and decision-making. As Alio described Canada’s commitment to refugees at the United Nations in Geneva, he was struck by the irony of his own unanswered application for protection. So, he wrote a scathing letter to his member of Parliament, detailing his five-year wait in limbo. The following week his permanent residency status was finally approved.

Alio’s dedication to his work helping refugees continues. He tells the story of a woman who had been raped, then forced to watch her husband’s murder in Syria, who attended a special program for female artisans thanks to Refugee Career Jumpstart. As she stitched a beautiful change purse, she felt a sense of agency returning. “I don’t want to think of myself as a victim — I’m a survivor,” she said. Her fortitude made all of Alio’s struggles worthwhile. “It’s not easy with grassroots organizations — some months I don’t get paid,” he says. “But stories like hers keep me loving what I do.”

 

 

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