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Sahar Sayedy had just completed a Fulbright Scholarship in the U.S. when the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan prevented her from returning home. ‘In a matter of weeks, my entire life was disrupted.’Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

It’s been a bittersweet few months for Sahar Sayedy.

In July 2021, the Kabul native was on her way back to Afghanistan after completing her Fulbright Scholarship in the U.S. when all hell broke loose. The Taliban had stormed the country, taking over provinces and eventually the capital city with shocking speed. The violent takeover meant she would not be able to return home.

“In a matter of weeks, my entire life was disrupted,” Ms. Sayedy says. “It was so heartbreaking to see all my peers, happy to go back to their countries, ready to work [and] share that joy with their families, but I couldn’t.”

The next few months were a blur. Ms. Sayedy moved to Canada to stay with her uncle and began looking for employment – all this in the middle of a pandemic while stressing endlessly over the safety of her family, who were still in Kabul under the shadow of the Taliban. Her previous work as a data manager with the World Health Organization and UNICEF meant that she and her family were soft targets.

“I’ve worked with American and Canadian stakeholders and partners as part of my work and that makes me more prone to threats and attacks,” she says.

Despite her educational qualifications and comprehensive work experience, Ms. Sayedy made no headway finding a job. She says it was a demoralizing experience.

“I wasn’t even getting callbacks for volunteering positions,” she says. “I was told that I need Canadian experience [and I should] attend résumé and interviewing workshops, but I already had all this experience, a big network back home. So to be told that I had to ‘find anything’ to get started was depressing,” she says.

Addressing systemic barriers and biases

Ms. Sayedy heard about the Sister2Sister program through a newcomer entrepreneurship WhatsApp group and applied. Within months, she landed her current job as a research and partnerships specialist with the Immigrant Employment Council of B.C., a non-profit that connects immigrant talent with potential employers.

The Sister2Sister program is run by Newcomer Women’s Services Toronto, which was founded by a group of Latin American refugees in 1983. While their Community Leadership program focuses on enhancing employment outcomes for racialized immigrant and refugee women, the Advanced Leadership program works on upskilling, upward mobility and career advancement. It offers training and education in project management, leadership development, workplace communication, human rights, public speaking and self-advocacy, capped off by an internship with leading Canadian organizations.

“We don’t see a lot of programs in the settlement sector focused on career advancement and leadership development of immigrant and refugee women,” says Sara Asalya, the newly appointed executive director at Newcomer Women’s Services and Sister2Sister program developer and lead.

“I am so tired of hearing stories about immigrant and refugee women being deskilled and underemployed. These women continue to face compounded challenges and barriers to not only access the Canadian labour market, but also to grow, advance and thrive in their careers,” she adds. “We have to address the larger systematic barriers that impact these women’s labour market integration and outcomes, including issues of foreign credentialism and employers’ biases.”

According to Ms. Asalya, 65 per cent of the leadership program participants have secured meaningful employment, while 25 per cent went into further training and education including master’s degrees. Ten per cent pursued their own community initiatives and launched startups.

Ms. Asalya says she would like to see more immigrant and refugee women participating on boards and in leadership positions, noting that Newcomer Women’s Services works closely with employers to encourage them to invest in global talent and hire more immigrant women.

“The integration of these women has to be a holistic one where they have an opportunity to be engaged civically, politically, socially, culturally and economically,” she says.

A recent study by the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC), titled Bridging the Gap: Immigrant Women and Their Labour Market Integration in the GTA, revealed that immigrant women in the Greater Toronto Area aren’t able to gain meaningful employment commensurate with their advanced qualifications and international work experience with reputed international brands and organizations.

The TRIEC study also brought up an issue that vexes immigrant professionals: the lack of Canadian work experience. Nearly 90 per cent of respondents said that their job search in the GTA was complicated by employers and recruiters asking for Canadian experience. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said that they took up further studies in Canada to give them a leg up.

“I got all my certifications for the Ontario College of Teachers but haven’t been hired as a teacher to this day – it has been 13 years,” says Windsor-based Jasleen Chawla. She immigrated from India and went through the grind of survival jobs while retraining and upgrading her education in Canada to find suitable employment.

After completing the mentorship program at Sister2Sister, Ms. Chawla recently started working as an industry specialist helping women in the skilled trades find employment. It’s her way of giving back to the community of immigrant women who find themselves professionally shortchanged.

“I want to make a difference in the lives of these women,” she says. “Having gone through this experience myself, I know what it takes to succeed here despite all the barriers the system throws at us.”

‘Sisters’ championing each other

Shabnam Salehi, former commissioner with the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, was a high-profile figure in Afghanistan and in the international human rights community when events in her home country forced her to flee. She was planning meetings and tours across Afghanistan when the Taliban began their offensive in July 2021 and her bosses advised her to leave immediately. She flew to Toronto.

After reading about Ms. Salehi in a Globe and Mail story, Judy Fantham, who was executive director of Newcomer Women’s Services at the time, reached out to her on Facebook. Ms. Salehi subsequently completed the Advanced Leadership program and will begin her role as a lecturer at the University of Ottawa in May.

“The leadership coaching component and the knowledge about the Canadian labour market and laws that I got from this program were especially useful for me,” she says.

Ms. Salehi notes that connecting with the other women in the program helped her get motivated to continue her work.

“You know, often people do not think about the psychological trauma that forced immigration has on newcomers,” Ms. Salehi says. “When I came here, I thought all was lost and that the years of hard work that my colleagues and I put in towards women’s human rights in Afghanistan had been wasted. But then I met other women in this program who were in a similar situation and I shared my story with them.”

At the University of Ottawa, Ms. Salehi will also work in the Human Rights office, which will enable her to continue pursuing her area of expertise: women’s rights issues in Afghanistan.

“My research project is about how the international community can build economic and political pressure on the Taliban to restore the rights of Afghan women,” she says. “I will never stop advocating for that.”

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