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Toronto UNHCR partnership seeks to increase refugee employment

Syrian refugee Noor Keshishian, right, stands in the dining room at Paramount Fine Foods in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood on Friday. Ms. Keshishian, the restaurant’s general manager, was a civil engineer in her home country before she arrived in Canada.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Adnan al-Mekdad and his family fled war-torn Syria as refugees and arrived in Canada just over two years ago, but he and his wife have struggled to find meaningful employment.

In Syria, he was a veterinarian by trade and later became a partner at a company working in pharmaceuticals. Once the crisis in the Middle Eastern country started, however, he and his family left everything behind and moved to his father’s village before leaving the country altogether.

Mr. al-Mekdad and his wife, Taghrid Ammis, and their three daughters came to Canada in February, 2016, with the help of sponsors. They found their current jobs in the service sector about ten months after arriving and settling in, but others haven’t been as fortunate.

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With that employment issue in mind, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced a partnership on Friday with Mohamad Fakih, president and chief executive of Paramount Fine Foods, a chain of Halal Middle Eastern restaurants that has worked to hire refugees. The association between the UN body and Paramount hopes to demonstrate to other businesses that they can benefit from the capabilities of refugees as employees.

Many employers believe it’s too costly and time-consuming to hire them: The agency and Paramount want to change that perception.

“We believe that refugees should not be seen only as burdens for societies in which they arrive, but that they bring professional skills and talents and can contribute to the society that welcomes them,” said Jean-Nicolas Beuze, the Canadian representative for the UNHCR.

Mr. al-Mekdad said he and other newcomers want to stop relying on refugee aid. They would like to care for themselves and their families and contribute to society as best they can.

“You want to start paying taxes, to feel like you are from here. You are not a guest or just a vulnerable one,” Mr. al-Mekdad said. “When you face such a thing like this, you don’t start to think how to depend [on others] much more. You want to help, not to be helped.”

My. Beuze hopes the Paramount president’s experience with hiring refugees and running a successful business will show other employers that the process is not a burden and the results beneficial to their businesses.

“[Mr. Fakih] is very well-positioned because he’s trusting refugees, he’s hiring them and he sees them as good potential for his work force ...,” Mr. Beuze said.

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Several Paramount locations are managed by Syrian refugees, and Mr. Fakih says it’s an important precedent to set. The company already has more than 150 refugees on the payroll.

“We decide to trust them ... because they are skilled and because it’s very important to us and it’s the right thing to do,’ Mr. Fakih said.

He said he’s heard from business owners struggling to fill positions with people committed to their work, but who in many cases aren’t considering hiring refugees.

“Here I have business people that are looking for people dedicated to their business and to make it better, and on the other side, I have human beings that were forced to leave their country, their homes ... looking for a job, looking for a way to dignify their life. We only need to put them together,” he said.

The announcement of the partnership was held at the Livelihood cafe, an establishment run entirely by refugees, in Toronto’s Kensington Market. It was selected by the UNHCR as another example of a thriving business benefiting from supporting or hiring refugees.

Mr. al-Mekdad works as an adviser to Livelihood on the coffee shop’s refugee-related projects, such as leveraging technology to assist newcomers. His wife is a manager there, although she initially had no previous experience in that kind of business.

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With the UN partnership, Mr. Beuze and Mr. Fakih are hoping not only to inspire Canadian businesses, but those in other countries, as well.

“We could set an example to the rest of the world by giving opportunities to these people that could be replicated worldwide,” Mr. Fakih said.

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