Abdel Malek’s journey from Syria to Canada has been full of both hardship and hope.
First he left his hometown of Kastoun (near Hama, more than 100 km south of Aleppo) when civil war broke out in 2011. Then he spent four years in limbo, living in the mountainous terrain of Lebanon with his wife, their 11 children, and his mother.
“I almost gave up,” Malek, 46, says with the aid of an interpreter.
When he and his family arrived in Picton, via Toronto, in late October 2015, they finally had a home to settle into. Malek took English lessons and got his driver’s licence. By the spring he’d even found part-time work tending a local market garden.
But there were challenges, too. In May 2016, Malek’s mother died. Malek missed his two brothers, who had also fled to Lebanon but didn’t follow the family to Canada. While most of his children were eager to attend their new school, two of them — one 16, the other 20 — refused to go. And Malek wondered how he would manage to support his family in this new environment.
In 2016, Quinte Immigration Services, a small non-profit headquartered in Belleville, began developing a new program to offer refugees such as Malek the chance to find their financial footing, by matching them with job opportunities in agriculture or food processing.
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Orlando Ferro, Quinte’s executive director, says he came up with the idea in a September 2015 meeting with other settlement agencies to discuss plans for receiving Syrian refugees. “I started talking with some people and seeing the profile of the families that we were waiting to arrive,” he says. “I noticed that a lot of them had agricultural backgrounds.” (A Citizen and Immigration Canada report from November 2015 indicates that 24 per cent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon had worked in agriculture.)
He also knew the area’s farming and food-processing sectors were facing a labour shortage — one that’s widespread in Canada. A 2016 report from the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council states the gap between supply of and demand for workers at 60,000. The sectors’ 7 per cent job-vacancy rate is the highest in the country.
Ferro got to wondering: What if Syrian refugees with agricultural experience could alleviate the labour shortage?
It was a Farmers Feed Cities bumper sticker that inspired the name of the project, Farmers Feed the World. Ferro obtained funding for the initiative from the Canadian Red Cross (nearly $100,000 over two years), as well as in-kind contributions from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and settlement agencies across the province.
In concept, matching refugees with jobs in the agriculture and food sectors sounds easy. In practice, it’s anything but.
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One major task for Quinte was to create tools and learning materials usable elsewhere in the province. They found that the agriculture ministry has a ready supply of educational material about farming and food production, as well as instructional tools for teaching basic skills such as the safe use of pesticides. But the information had to be translated into Arabic.
The agency is also working to identify potential employment opportunities for refugees. Ferro hopes to hold a job fair later this winter, long before the growing season begins — but there’s a lot of work still to be done between now and then.
As the project comes together, other settlement agencies are watching closely. Every week, Ferro says, inquiries flood in from organizations across Ontario and elsewhere in Canada. And every day, the pressure to accelerate the job-matching process increases. “A lot of refugees will lose their government supports in months,” he explains, “and they are very anxious about what they are going to do after that.”
Stan Raper, United Food and Commercial Workers Canada organizer and coordinator of the union’s migrant agricultural worker support programs, says “the challenge for the industry over the last 50 years has been the retention of a work force and the reliance on the temporary foreign worker and seasonal agriculture worker programs to fill that labour shortage.” He adds: “If the Syrian refugees can find a decent employer, they’ll get lots of work.”
Sometimes that work will be seasonal, but full-time opportunities are increasingly available. Raper warns, though, that Canada’s newest residents may encounter challenges, including long hours and demanding (sometimes dangerous) work.
Ferro anticipates most refugees will land entry-level labour jobs picking apples, mushrooms, or grapes. As they gain experience, he adds, some refugees might even be able to form co-operatives to acquire land.
Malek doesn’t have any direct experience working in agriculture — in Kastoun he owned a general store — yet he’s familiar with the industry because his hometown was surrounded by cotton and wheat farms.
His market-garden job allowed the former shopkeeper to give farming a try. In a section of the garden set aside for his personal use, Malek raised cabbage, tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, potatoes, and peppers.
Malek hopes to own a farm one day, so he can raise wheat and corn. He’s looking to Farmers Feed the World to help him take the first steps toward that dream with a job in the industry, be it in farming or food processing.
“My family is big,” Malek says, “and I want to make sure that, whatever the opportunity, I will choose the best one.”