Armed with PhDs and a wealth of experience, Shereen Shokry and Humayun Kabir immigrated to Canada with hopes of picking up where they left off in their careers.
They soon faced a common challenge for newcomers to Canada: Getting jobs in the fields they are highly qualified for in other countries.
Today, Dr. Shokry, 43, and Dr. Kabir, 40, are back working in the education system, thanks to a special George Brown College bridging program for internationally trained professionals that prepares them to teach in Canadian colleges.
The one-year certificate program – which also offers students opportunities to network with prospective employers – is just one example of how Canadian colleges are helping immigrants gain solid footing in their new country.
"When I came here [to Canada], entering school again was something very strange for me – to start from the beginning," says Dr. Shokry. Despite her medical and teaching qualifications, initially she could find work only at a call centre after arriving in Canada with her husband, an endodonist also aiming to work in Canada, and their two children in 2015.
Back home in Egypt, and also in Saudi Arabia, she was a professor of dentistry and an oral maxillofacial radiologist – who has expertise in using imaging techniques to diagnose diseases of the head and mouth.
After graduation, she landed a job teaching biology part-time at George Brown. She also hopes to write her first exam in the coming months to qualify to continue practising her dentistry specialty.
Dr. Kabir, originally from Bangladesh, has a PhD in cultural anthropology, taught in his home country and Japan, and worked for international organizations. After settling in Toronto with his wife, who also has a PhD in cultural anthropology, and their then four-year-old daughter, in May of 2016, he ended up driving for Uber for several months as a source of income.
"In the initial few months here in Canada, I kept sending résumés but got few responses," he said.
After taking a workshop for new immigrants that led to job offers in warehouses and restaurants, his research connected him with George Brown. Near the end of his first semester, he landed a position at Humber College teaching sociology. Recently, he added another job: as a George Brown instructor in world civilizations.
It is no coincidence that Canadian colleges go to great lengths to welcome and prepare immigrant students for school and work.
Immigration is key in helping soften the effects on the labour force of the aging population, an important element of long-term economic growth, according to the Conference Board of Canada's report, A long-term view of Canada's demographics, released in October, 2016.
Bridging, pre-arrival, and other programs and services are particularly important for immigrant students, who, compared with international students (those in the country on study permits but who also may apply to immigrate to Canada), tend to be older, have more extensive education and work backgrounds, and are also permanent residents, notes Alex Irwin, director of George Brown's School of Immigrant and Transitional Education (SITE).
Along with the one-year college teachers training program that Ms. Shokry and Mr. Kabir have completed, SITE offers bridging programs in nursing and construction management.
Among other Canadian colleges with prominent immigrant programs and services is Red River College, which has campuses in Winnipeg and other areas of Manitoba, and this year has nearly 1,360 immigrant students who are permanent residents.
"Our goal is to support immigrants to Manitoba with a holistic approach throughout their entire student life cycle, and we have a large suite of programs and services across different departments and areas to work toward this goal," Nora Sobel, manager of diversity and intercultural services at Red River, said in an e-mail interview.
Red River recruits students from other countries to aid in boosting Manitoba's skilled labour shortages, the school's website says. In the spring, for instance, the college launched a pathway program to construction skills, starting with 20 students from countries such as Syria, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Also on campus, Red River's Diversity and Intercultural Services department helps organize the annual welcome party for immigrant and international students, and offers services, including financial aid information sessions.
Many programs don't just delve into the fine points of the jobs themselves; they also give immigrant students insight into the "cultural norms and social cues in the workplace," notes Mr. Irwin.
He gives this example: "The Canadian workplace can be seen as more casual, but there are a lot of social clues we take for granted that have to be learned if you're new to the country, like what to call your boss. Calling someone 'sir' may not be appropriate in Canada."
Prominent among pre-arrival programs is a one-day orientation and information session called Planning for Canada, which is offered free, both online and in person, in countries including India, China and the Philippines.
The federally funded program was launched in October, 2015, and is jointly run by the Canadian Immigrant Integration Program (CIIP, a program of Colleges and Institutes Canada) and Canadian Orientation Abroad (a program of the International Organization for Migration).
Planning for Canada has teamed with dozens of organizations (including the YMCA, the Immigrant Access Fund, and employment, tourism and nursing interests) as well as colleges that help students to plan their journeys to Canada.
Partner colleges include Red River, George Brown, Bow Valley College in Calgary, Vancouver Community College, and Parkland College, with campuses in Saskatchewan.
One goal of Planning for Canada is to "dispel any misunderstanding or misconceptions earlier in the [immigration] process," says CIIP director Holly Skelton.
She says a bulk of immigrants are chosen to come to Canada based on their high levels of academic achievement, yet one common misunderstanding is that credentials earned in another country will be recognized fully in Canada.
"We're there to provide a reality check and provide information they need to take action right away, before they come, so they can hit the ground running and don't waste time," says Ms. Skelton.
Colleges and Institutes Canada vice-president Alain Roy says the CIC hosts more than 50,000 international students annually, and surveys show about half plan to apply for a work permit, which can be done up to two years beyond their studies.
"For them to want to stay and work here, they need to have a positive experience," says Mr. Roy. "We've had a lot of growth in the number of international students [coming to colleges] in the last few years, so schools are putting in a range of services to help them have a positive study experience."
It doesn't just come down to helping immigrant students – it's a give-and-take.
"At Red River College, we believe immigrants to Manitoba and their life experiences, skills and knowledge definitely contribute to the intellectual, social and economic growth and development of our community," says Ms. Sobel. "They are key contributors and even drivers of innovation and sustainability, as well as in our collective efforts to foster an inclusive and welcoming community."
Dr. Kabir says he is grateful for the help he has received in Canada, and emphasizes how he and other immigrants also enrich the lives of people in their new country.
"I never feel like I'm here just to have a good life for my own interest," he says. "I feel as an academic working in my country, that I can contribute, and the location is not that important."