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Hiring refugees

A small non-profit in Belleville, Ont., has helped 90 Syrian refugees find good jobs on farms and in the ag and food sector. Now other regions across Canada are replicating their model

Shortly after coming to power in Ottawa, the federal Liberals announced Canada would help relocate displaced Syrians, and the program has proved widely popular. Across the country, over 350 communities have welcomed more than 40,000 Syrian refugees.

In the midst of it all in 2015, details on how this relocation would be achieved were scarce. Even so, in the town of Belleville, Ont., the executive director of Quinte Immigration Services (QIS), Orlando Ferro, began preparing for a major influx.

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Based on his experience with refugees in 1999 during the Kosovo crisis, he expected Ottawa would fly refugees to military bases, including a major Canadian Forces base in nearby Trenton. That’s where the Kosovars had arrived and it’s where Ferro’s team at QIS worked with other stakeholders to help with that relocation process.

Assuming the Syrian refugees would be handled similarly, Ferro’s team started mobilizing the community and several stakeholders with community meetings, planning sessions and two information forums about Syria and its culture, religion, demographics and the profile of the types of refugees they would be receiving.

A total of 29 presentations were made at service clubs, churches and community groups, and over 600 people attended those forums.

Looking deeper into the profiles of the expected refugees, Ferro noticed almost a quarter had an agricultural background. Further research backed this up, with one government report indicating 24 per cent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon had worked in agriculture.

Ferro made a link with his region’s employment needs. This part of Ontario is a mix of urban and rural, with a rapidly developing wine industry. A few years ago, the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council pegged the gap between supply of and demand for farm workers at 60,000, and said farming’s job vacancy rate is among the highest of any sector in the economy.

Ferro’s vision was to create a program focused on finding employment in agriculture and in food processing for the Syrian refugees arriving in Trenton. He presented the plan to a local immigration partnership group and the stakeholders accepted and applauded the idea.

Canadian Red Cross offered to fund a pilot project (nearly $100,000 over two years), with in-kind contributions from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and settlement agencies across the provinces.

By May 2016 the QIS started putting in motion a strategic plan for the project, providing the refugees and other immigrants information about farming and food production in Canada, and matching them with jobs in the agri-food sector.

They called their project “Farmers Feed the World” a name inspired by “Farmers Feed Cities” bumper stickers.

Ferro also knew having Arabic-speaking staff was essential to the success of the project so they trained and certified Arabic-speaking professionals to act as interpreters. To find and hire Arabic-speaking personnel was a challenge in this area, and they needed to recruit and train volunteers quickly. It took a few months to create a professional crew, but they had them in place for the refugees’ arrivals.

“In projects like this it is essential to have no communication barriers,” says Ferro.

The vision was to link these two very different groups to help the refugees find work and settle into their new country. And about 90 of the 150 refugee participants found work.

It was a pilot project and QIS soon discovered what doesn’t work for agriculture.

For example, they organized a refugee information session attended by 150 refugees, with support from OMAFRA and other stakeholders, and put together a panel of experts in different areas of work from self-employment to seasonal labour and full-time employment. However, the event interfered with planting season.

“Most of the agricultural jobs are seasonal,” says Ferro. “We needed to recruit, assess and prepare a contingent of potential farming workers and food processing staff with the proper skills in time.”

However, this session was a needed preliminary step. It was here that assessments were started with individual interviews, and staff noticed many of the refugees had literacy challenges. They had lived for most of their lives in remote agricultural regions in Syria and needed support, training and help writing their resumés.

Just before the harvest season, QIS hosted a skill-match session, bringing together the assessed refugees (with their resumés put together by Ferro’s staff during the assessment process) with about 14 employers plus Prince Edward County officers representing 17 micro-farmers and employers in food processing. In all, 127 refugees attended and QIS interpreters assisted them during the interview process with potential employers.

From the session, many of the refugees were hired by farms or by food processing plants. Another group was trained and certified by the Health Unit in food handling and started catering services and working in Middle Eastern restaurants.

One lesson they learned was that harvest coincides with the religious holiday of Ramadan. “The workers were fasting during the day and very weak to perform the activities required during the harvest season,” says Ferro.

It was also a two-way learning process. Just in time for the harvest, 18 workers who were previously selected for farming labour attended a bus tour of local farms and wineries organized by the county. It literally gave them the lay of the land before they started working on it.

Feedback from the employers indicated that many of the Syrian workers had additional skills not captured during their first assessment or on their resumés, since the target was only agricultural work. Many had skills in construction and other types of manual labour.

Recently, the project expanded beyond the region with a launch of an interactive website. It contains information about agriculture in Canada translated into Arabic and informational videos taken during the QIS information sessions in Belleville. “The manuals were developed and published by OMAFRA and we obtained the copyright licenses for the translation,” says Ferro.

The pilot project will officially close at the end of March but QIS is negotiating with another funder to maintain the support through the interactive sections of the website until the end of 2018.

This will also give the Syrian refugees access to their Arabic-speaking staff as needed for a little longer.

Similar initiatives have started in Atlantic Canada, Saskatchewan and Manitoba and several other regions in Ontario have replicated this model.

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