With a law degree from Syria and four years of legal practice under her belt, Talar Chitjian hit a wall when she tried to restart her career in Canada.
No credential assessment agencies would look at the transcripts and certificates she brought with her when she and her husband hurriedly fled Syria after civil war broke out in 2012. She tried to get into a Canadian law school but everyone asked for documentation to be sent directly from her alma mater, the University of Aleppo, which like other educational institutions in the war-torn country has been the constant target of mortar and rocket attacks.
“The university was bombed. The court was bombed totally. I had no idea who ran the law society there (now). All records were lost,” said a teary Chitjian, 36, who arrived from Lebanon in December 2015 — among the first of more than 60,000 Syrian refugees who would eventually be welcomed to Canada.
While she was happy to begin a new life here, she yearned to be able to practise law again.
“It was so frustrating,” she said. “No one tried to understand my situation as a refugee. It’s not my fault that I couldn’t get them these sealed documents to prove my credentials.”
The turning point came one day in 2017 when she got an invitation from a community agency to participate in a pilot project designed to help Syrian refugees “reconstruct” their credentials so their skills and knowledge don’t go to waste as they try to get their careers back on track.
For Chitjian, it meant being able to start the master’s of common law program at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University last September. She hopes to write her Ontario bar exam in 2020.
The pilot program has now been made permanent and is available not just to Syrians, but also to refugees from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Turkey, Ukraine and Venezuela.
Shamira Madhany, managing director of World Education Services (WES), a not-for-profit agency that developed the pilot program, said the idea of The Gateway Program came out of a community roundtable meeting to help the new wave of Syrian newcomers find employment.
“We looked at the large number of Syrians who came and many were highly educated, but they had to leave their country quickly, many without their credential documents,” said Madhany, whose agency has helped assess newcomers’ credentials for Canadian employers, academic institutions and licensing bodies for 40 years.
“All these institutions only take verifiable documents from the source organizations. What should we do with those who can’t provide (sealed) documents through no fault of their own?”
With its database filled with information on the education systems around the world, including details such as course descriptions and the names of deans at specific universities, WES staff would “reconstruct” an applicant’s curriculum vitae based on the information and documentation (in copies or photo images) the person provides before issuing them an alternative credential assessment report.
“What the report is saying is, based on our 40-plus-years experience in this field, this is a proxy of what this person has done,” Madhany explained.
A total of 337 Syrians participated in the 18-month pilot where evaluators were able to reconstruct the course of study using partial documentation, information in WES’s archives and knowledge of the Syrian education system.
For those using the assessment report for further education, three-quarters had been offered admission to programs ranging from accounting to early childhood education to law. For those using the report for professional licensing, 84 per cent had their credentials recognized by regulatory bodies. And for those using the assessment for employment, more than 60 per cent reported receiving at least one job offer.
Allison Pond, CEO of ACCES Employment, which aims to connect employers with the diverse labour force, recognized the additional barriers refugees face in the job market that go beyond the recognition of their foreign credentials and work experience.
“We referred 70 people to the pilot. The results were incredible. Everyone got their alternative assessment report,” said Pond. “This initiative has such a tremendous impact on a lot of people.”
To access the program, eligible refugees must first contact one of WES’s 12 community partners in Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec (and in Nova Scotia as of November) to be pre-screened before they can submit their assessment request online. Applicants are charged $220 for the assessment of a degree or diploma and $327 for a course-by-course evaluation.
Carmen Jacques of Certified Public Accountants Ontario said the professional regulator has worked with WES for many years and is very confident about the quality of the new alternative credential assessment reports.
“This is going to break down many barriers for those who were displaced and help ensure our profession is accessible to all those who are interested and qualified,” she said.
Meanwhile, Chitjian said she is thrilled that she is inching closer to returning to her career as a lawyer.
“I’ve lost everything in the war in Syria, but I have never lost my passion for law,” said Chitjian, the mother of a toddler. “The Gateway Program has changed my life.”
Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung