When it comes to work ethic, one of Yahya Kazmouz’s employers say he’s a “machine.” The 23-year-old works full time for a restoration company, picks up two shifts a week at Pizza Hotline and is helping to launch a catering business called Syriana Foods.

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When it comes to work ethic, one of Yahya Kazmouz’s employers say he’s a "machine." The 23-year-old works full time for a restoration company, picks up two shifts a week at Pizza Hotline and is helping to launch a catering business called Syriana Foods.

When he came to Canada in February 2016, he had no English skills. Since then, the government-assisted Syrian refugee has integrated more quickly than most. Of the nearly 900 Syrian newcomers who arrived in Manitoba two winters ago, most now rely on social assistance, provincial government figures show.

Their first year in Canada, government-assisted refugees are supported by the federal resettlement assistance program. Privately sponsored refugees are supported and resettled by their sponsors. After one year in Canada, all refugees are eligible for provincial employment and income assistance benefits.

At the end of March, 204 Syrian refugee families who arrived in Manitoba during winter 2015-16 were on assistance. By summer, there were 193 families receiving provincial welfare.

The province doesn’t keep track of how many of the Syrian families collecting welfare were government-assisted or sponsored by private groups, but studies show those with community connections and sponsors to help them resettle will find work and integrate more quickly.

Last December, a federal study of Syrian refugee adults who arrived in Canada from November 2015 to April 2016 found fewer than 10 per cent of adults who were government-assisted refugees were working, while more than 52 per cent of those who were privately sponsored were employed. Of the nearly 900 Syrian refugees who arrived in Manitoba two winters ago, 686 were government-assisted.

Big break: meeting established refugee job-creator

As a government-assisted refugee with lots of work, Kazmouz is one of the exceptions. He lists two key ingredients in his recipe for successful employment: "language and connections."

When he arrived in Winnipeg, he had neither. Kazmouz, who lives in a North End duplex with his parents and siblings, attended language classes five days a week. Then he took part in a four-month Pathway Program to Construction Skills at Red River College, which offered basic English, safety and skills training, and a month-long job placement. It was one of four refugee employment development initiative pilot projects launched by the provincial government this year. At the end of July, six of its 95 participants were employed.

That program helped, but it wasn’t enough, said Kazmouz.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Nour Ali (left), who provides jobs and volunteer opportunities for refugees, has been a benefactor to Yahya Kazmouz, a Syrian who arrived in Winnipeg in February 2016.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Nour Ali (left), who provides jobs and volunteer opportunities for refugees, has been a benefactor to Yahya Kazmouz, a Syrian who arrived in Winnipeg in February 2016.

His big break into the workforce was connecting with entrepreneur and community activist Nour Ali, an established Syrian refugee who has set out to create jobs and volunteer opportunities for refugees while helping them establish their own businesses. So far, there’s the catering company, a transportation company and a snow-removal service.

His restoration business, Thank You Canada, hired more than two-dozen refugees last month alone, including many from Syria who had no local connections such as Kazmouz, who is a "work machine," Ali said.

"We should make jobs more easy for people with experience from back home to get... They’ll pay taxes and you can spend that money on something else." –Nour Ali

"We try to fill that gap," said Ali. He benefitted from the community support and job connections he received as a privately sponsored refugee when he arrived in Canada nearly five years ago. Now, he wants to pay it forward.

"My goal within this coming year is to support as much as possible to get people working," he said. Many newcomers arrive with job skills and experience, and he thinks they should be able to put them to use as soon as possible.

"If you have experience, you should do what you know," said Ali. The sooner resettled people can get back to work, the better it is for everyone, but it’s not always easy, he said.

Recent arrivals risk having benefits clawed back if they take paid work. Some worry about accepting temporary jobs and not being able to get assistance again if the work dries up. Some have been exploited by employers in unsafe work conditions for low pay. "A lot of people don’t want to start working as a slave," said Ali. He said he pays his restoration company employees $14 an hour, to start.

Skilled newcomers shouldn’t be required to pursue college-entrance levels of English to have their credentials recognized in Manitoba, said Ali.

"We should make jobs more easy for people with experience from back home to get," he says. If they can put their skills to work and increase their earning power, it’s good for them and the government, said Ali.

"They’ll pay taxes and you can spend that money on something else."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.