Lahore to Toronto: A “Leave and Learn” Story

By Anam Raheel

I vividly remember August 13th, 2019. The sun was intimidating, and I had just landed from Lahore, Pakistan, where August is the worst time of the year. Surprised beyond belief, feeling this new city had its summer game on, I instantly started looking outside the car window admiring the surroundings and highway. The city looked straight out of a Hollywood movie. I was riveted by this new backdrop called Toronto. The adventure was about to begin.

Before arriving here in Toronto, I had tracked plenty of job postings and drooled over the possibilities of continuing a glorious career in brand marketing. Little did I know then what people viewed as the land of opportunities was actually a land of hiccups, to put it very mildly. My husband showed me around while jet-lag took its toll for the first few days. A little research showed that COSTI was one of the immigrant employment centers close to our place. I decided to drop in the very next day. The air was clean and the setting crisp, with computers to use and mentors to assist. I clung onto hope. Soon, a mentor was assigned, and he guided me to what the next steps might be for this integration into the Canadian workplace. I was informed about an upcoming workshop, and I signed up. If I were to put my journey into words, that workshop was the first dot connecting many dots to come; I just didn’t know. I’d like to call it destiny.

Posing with two mentors from COSTI, an immigrant services program

Never having to sit at home unemployed, I didn’t know the feeling. My wedding holidays were the maximum number of days I didn’t go to work and now here I was happy to have found a session to help me stay motivated, connected and busy. Dressing up and showing up has been my motto since forever. I dressed up every morning and attended the workshop for a month. We were all immigrants in attendance, including the successful ones, the ones on top, and those running the show who were presenting to us.

There was hope. We tailored our ways and our resumes to what was deemed Canadian. But this ‘Canadian-ism’ was a new -ism entirely, I hadn’t expected this to happen – people having to face hurdles and a lack of recognition of their achievements or true potential when applying to jobs. We were warned about job scams. Not to forget, I experienced two absurd pyramid-style door-to-door marketing job interviews myself, of which I did recognize the second one instantly and wanted to run but couldn’t (it’s a funny story I’d narrate some other day). I was burning out on all my savings, the city was new, I started spending a lot on Ubers to save time and energy in what was already a very loaded schedule of attending back-to-back workshops, networking, and full-time job-search.

Everyday my conscience kept telling me to earn back what I was spending. A retail job fair came up at my favourite mall, Yorkdale. I dropped by well-prepared for the interviews and landed a retail job. I knew it wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I had no choice. It had been just over a month since I had arrived and I was glad to begin this retail role. The first month threw me off a bit – numb legs and dead feet every day. Never had I stood for so many hours constantly on my toes, juggling back and forth with a 30-minute lunch break thrown in. I didn’t know what these front-end retail jobs were like. I grew to like our discounts, the clothes, and a few nice customers we got a chance to chat with. This was a horrible reminder of how the minimum wage cannot give people meals and a roof. You could not depend on such work for a livelihood.

Fun times with some colleagues from York University

In the store, many of us came from brilliant career backgrounds, the narratives surprised me. Yet, we were all here in this together, unable to find a space to showcase our skills and capabilities. Some days were harder than others – I felt worthless but the idea to keep the goal in sight was the key to surviving this curve. This learning curve is huge, I tell you, it is long and super-coiled, and everyone walks a unique path. I saw job descriptions that listed everything I could do or had previously done – a versatile communications professional, a marketeer, a brand manager with a passion for PR.

I had a vast professional and social circle in Pakistan and as much as I wanted to love Canada, it seemed that I just couldn’t crack the mystery of finding a gainful job here – it was a black hole. It dawned on me later that everyone dealt with this, even those who had graduated from Canadian universities or colleges. But why did they have to? Because if you didn’t have connections within the industry you wished to work; well, good luck finding a job. It is probably the same in Pakistan, in that networks were important; but people would still get jobs. By contrast, nothing in Canada seemed to be working, really!

One day, a new girl joined our team in the store. Her work-life seemed pretty sorted as she was working at York University as well, and I wondered why she was working in an entry-level role at our retailer. Well, now when I look back, she probably came for me. That’s a hearty joke. The universe has its way of throwing the most random people in our lives right when we need them most. I enjoyed talking to her about what she did, what I used to do and there was a bit of interesting overlap in our work and I felt thoroughly refreshed every time we talked.

My search continued, the resume copies kept piling up in a folder, and the count went up in the hundreds! Applications were sent, gantt charts and excel spread sheets were populated and tracked. No answers were received. And when there was a response, the company ended up choosing someone “more fit” for the role. There was no guideline in black and white that would ever explain this phenomenon of being constantly deselected from the roles I was most qualified for. It was consistent and disheartening. I wasn’t alone. There were so many like me. Soon it was February 2020 (in the early days of COVID), and I was going back to Pakistan for a visit, praying that things would be better when I returned.

It’s hard to wrap your head around notions like diversity and inclusion in a country that takes great pride in being so multicultural and open to newcomers. Canada was unfortunately failing to produce enough employers willing to take that risk on newcomer talent nor provide any support in integrating a skilled workforce to its advantage. Skills and work history must mean something substantial on a candidate’s resume! Your CV wasn’t meant to end up in the trash just because of strange misconceptions about your experience not being “Canadian enough” nor rigorous nor equivalent to the perceived expectations. All job postings are aspirational; but if employers don’t meet the candidates where they are, nor do they appreciate how their unique talents and experiences could be an asset than a hindrance, they are missing out on critical talent.

My phone beeped out of the blue in the middle of a joyous day, when my sister was getting married. The caller was this girl from my store who was asking for my resume. She mentioned her team at the university needed to hire someone (me) for a possible position. Guess what! That was it, my foot was in the door before I knew it: I had just landed my first dream job! One of the directors at York University, had decided to assess and accept a newcomer’s talents and experience. She took a risk on me for which I will be forever grateful!

What did this process prove? Networking (and even applying for jobs and attending interviews you never get called back to becomes a sort of networking if you’re lucky) is the only dominant truth prevailing in the Canadian jobs market. I currently serve as a Communications Coordinator at the York University. However, I still don’t hear back on resumes I send online for permanent roles. No kidding! However, if my story is anything to go by, I do believe there will be that one unorthodox employer somewhere (diamond in the rough, needle in the haystack, pick your metaphor) who is willing to take a risk on diverse talent. And that, my friend, is your silver lining. 

Anam Raheel is the Communications Coordinator at York University with a strong background in branding and marketing.

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