Succeeding as a new immigrant to Canada requires determination, a positive attitude and a little support and understanding from others, according to a panel of successful new Canadians living in Prince George.
The Immigrant and Multicultural Services Society, Initiatives Prince George and Prince George Chamber of Commerce hosted a conference on Friday focused on making the city and local employers more appealing to new immigrants.
On March 9, 1985 Albert Koehler arrived in Vancouver from Germany with his wife and two young children.
“The next day we were sitting on an old log on English Bay beach, and my wife turned to me and said, Now what?'” Koehler said. “We had two kids, two and five years old. We had no jobs. We didn’t know anybody. I had no keys in my pocket. At that point I was praying things have to work.”
Koehler, then 38 years old, was trained as an engineer and mechanic.
“I had a good position in Germany. I had my own secretary and 40 people reported to me,” Koehler said. “(But) I left the house at 7 a.m. every morning and came home at 9 p.m. I thought, there must be more to life.'”
In Canada, Koehler said, he was very self-conscious of his accent.
“I didn’t want to speak at first.”
But four weeks into his new life in Canada, Koehler was getting his hair cut and the hair stylist commented on his accent. She said, “everyone in this city has an accent, I wish I had one,” Koehler said.
“Not once have I been criticized because I have an accent,” Koehler said. “Coming from Europe, that is very different.”
Eventually he found a job working as a mechanic in a gear shop, saved up and started his own consulting firm.
“If you have been to other countries, this is it, this is paradise.”
For internal medicine specialist Dr. Firas Mansour, life in Canada has been challenging, but ultimately rewarding.
“I was born and raised in Damascus in Syria. Damascus is a major city. I never thought I’d be living in a small town and enjoying it,” Mansour said. “(But) the challenge is really more than I ever thought it would be. One friend told me every time you move in your life, it takes a year off your life. I think more.”
Mansour graduated with a medical degree from Damascus University in 1992. From there he moved to New York and Chicago to finish his specialist training.
“In 2001 I was recruited on a work visa to work in Quesnel,” Mansour said. “What a shock to me, Chicago to Quesnel.”
When he left, he told his friends in Chicago that moving to Canada was a good move. There were times when he thought he’d been mistaken, he said.
“It took almost four years before I could get my permanent residency. I had to apply every year,” Mansour said. “I had to do five different exams to get my licence here. I thought, I’ve studied for exams before.’ But it is totally different when you are working and raising a family.”
Mansour said changes to the immigration system have reduced some of the obstacles he faced coming to the country.
After nearly five years in Quesnel, Mansour and his family decided to move to Prince George to expand their career and personal opportunities.
“I love the fact I can drive to work in five minutes. I used to drive to work for one-and-a-half hours in Chicago and New York.”
Mansour said immigrants need a little more time to adjust to a new job in a new country than someone who already lives there.
“Give the immigrant some time to build their skills. They start slow… but they’ll reach the same level,” he said. “And please do not generalize. If I make a mistake, do not assume all people from Syria, or all Muslims, are bad.”
CIBC loans manager Janet Ayorech came to Prince George from Uganda in 1989 with high hopes.
“I consider myself the spoiled girl. I had worked in a bank in Uganda for 15 years … from a teller up to a branch manager,” Ayorech said. “I spoke English in school. I thought I’d walk down the street and any bank would hire me.”
Ayorech said she thought life in North America would be like the magazines: big houses and fancy cars.
“My dream was bigger than reality. It took me probably about a month to drop,” she said. “I was very lonely, I had a lot of regret. I had to learn to take it one day at a time.”
She bundled up against the cold Prince George winter a challenge for a young woman who had only seen snow in movies and dropped off resumes at every bank she could find.
“There was no job for me. I didn’t have Canadian experience. I didn’t have Canadian qualifications,” she said.
Eventually an Immigrant and Multicultural Services Society worker introduced her to a lady who worked at CIBC, she said.
“She got me a job at CIBC in Pine Centre, casual work. I was on call,” she said. “They told me there was no hope of getting more hours.”
After struggling to get by on casual hours, she eventually got a full-time position as a teller at the bank.
“I learned everything I could at that branch. I took courses,” she said. “It took me seven years on the teller line, but I moved up to lending. I had to be successful, not just for me, but for all the immigrants.”
There were times when she faced discrimination sometimes curious children would ask if her dark skin would rub off, or if she was only dark on her hands and face.
“Sometimes they don’t know, and are just curious. Or they want to piss you off, but please don’t let them do that,” she said.”I knew that I was different, because of my skin colour. But I also knew in my mind that different is not always bad, different can be good.”
In one situation, an older man refused to come to her till at the bank. The other tellers, seeing the situation, closed their tills and refused to serve the man.
Eventually the bank manager served the man and he left. But another day he came back and saw her training other tellers at the counter.
“I don’t know if he saw me training other tellers and thought I must know what I’m doing. But he waited to see me. I was very nervous, I was sweating,” Ayorech said. “Afterwards he became a very good customer.”