As a teenager living in Iraq, Osama Ali Ozkan looked in the mirror one day, and told himself ‘I will obtain my PhD in Canada.’ And more than three decades later, – 11 years after he immigrated to Canada with his family – the technology consultant and Fanshawe College instructor has achieved his goal – completing a Ph.D in computer software engineering at Western University.
Osama, who works for the Local Health Integration Network and teaches at Fanshawe College, also ran for city council last year with the aim of bringing more diversity to London leadership. While he did not win the election, his campaign helped raise awareness about important issues in the London community.
Originally from Iraq, Osama was living and studying in Istanbul with his wife and three children when he received the news he had been accepted as a skilled immigrant to Canada because of his background as a computer engineer. To Osama, it was a dream come true. “I wanted to get my PhD in Canada and for my kids . . . I wanted to settle in a stable country that respects human rights,” he says.
Then, they made the big move to Canada, and then found themselves facing the obstacle of having no Canadian experience. “It’s the nightmare for every skilled immigrant,” he says. But Osama found a way to get that experience: Volunteering. As soon as the family arrived, he started searching for a place to put his years of training and experience to good use. He started volunteering at a Toronto hospital in the IT department, and after six months, he was working his first job. Osama says he tells all newcomers the solution is in volunteering. “It is the key,” he says. “Then when employers ask for Canadian experience, you have Canadian experience.”
Osama spent seven years working as a support analyst at London Health Sciences Centre before applying to do his Ph.D at Western University. His wife also volunteered and now works for the London Employment Help Centre.
Twelve years after arriving in Canada, Osama’s family is thriving and his two oldest children are attending Western University. He has completed his PhD, participated in politics and worked as a technology specialist and teacher. But even though he now has a lot of Canadian experience, he continues to contribute as a volunteer with literacy, education and multicultural organizations. Osama is the director of the Canadian-Iraqi Turkmen Association and on the board of Literacy Link. “It’s my pleasure to volunteer as a board and committee member, to be a positive and active part of London and give back to society at large,” he says.
When he arrived in London in 2016, he had no home, no money and no food. But Sebastien Aka Kouakou, who lived as a refugee in Ghana before being accepted to do his PhD in Spanish and Ethnic Migration at Western University had a heart filled with hope. What’s more, he had a little help from some friends, says Sebastien, who now works in Western’s Department of Modern Languages and literatures.
The support he received from academic colleagues – the friend who “is like an angel” who covered his rent, groceries and living expenses when he first settled in London and the peer who helped him keep up with studies when he had an unexpected health issue – are what fuel Sebastien to continue helping others achieve their goals here, he says.
Originally from Côte d'Ivoire in West Africa, Sebastien was a peace activist who campaigned for non-violence among youth during a civil war that killed both his brother and father. He says his advocacy gave him a high profile that made him a target for threats, and after enduring nine years of war and surviving a shooting, he fled the country with a cousin in 2011.
As a refugee, Sebastien studied at the University of Ghana, but he was not able to legally work in that country, and so when a friend encouraged him to apply to do a PhD in Canada, he felt it was a good opportunity. After years of disruption and living in precarious conditions as a refugee, Sebastien says he feels safe in Canada. But he doesn’t take it for granted, using time between PhD work and studies to volunteer as an interpreter and help international students navigate the university system, he says.
Sebastien was awarded the 2018 Teaching Award of Excellence at Western University as a Spanish teaching assistant, and has been chosen as Ambassador of the Migrations and Ethnic Relations collaborative program at Western.
“The people who helped me gave me hope when I needed it. A way for me to express my gratitude, is to help others. I commit myself to doing volunteering . . . Life is possible when we are together,” says Sebastien. . “It makes me feel happy to be engaged in this community.”
Lisseth D’Andrea was born in El Salvador, the smallest country in Central America. Lisseth came from a background of professionals. Her father is an industrial engineer, who also holds a Masters degree in Business Administration. Her mother is an elementary school teacher. Lisseth, who works for the City of London as an Employment Support Specialist and volunteers as a Sunday school teacher at her church, arrived in Canada with her family 32 years ago, on Feb, 10, 1987. They had a pretty good comfortable life in El Salvador, but circumstances changed and they found themselves headed to Canada, hopeful for opportunities.
“It was difficult to settle in a new country, and they worked hard to navigate the culture shock, challenging weather, new traditions and different way of thinking,”, recalls Lisseth.
Although they didn’t know anybody in London, Lisseth says she didn’t feel isolated. “It definitely helps when you have the right supports in place, family, friends, and even strangers can make a huge difference in one’s journey,” she says. Lisseth focused on getting all the education she could and moving forward in life. Three months after settling in London, Lisseth got involved in the Futures program offered through Fanshawe College and began working in an accounting office on Oxford Street. Since “numbers were not (her) thing,” she set her mind on attending post-secondary school, with the goal of securing a job where she could grow. Liz quickly got involved in the community, started volunteering at Parkwood Hospital to gain the “Canadian work experience, “ required by many employers.
Lisseth originally wanted to be a doctor, because she is committed to helping people. But she decided to help people in a different way. She turned her focus on helping internationally trained professionals, inspired by her father’s experience as an immigrant in Canada. Despite his background as an industrial engineer, he was not able to work in his field here, and for him that was humiliating and frustrating, she recalls. She is happy that her work allows her to help internationally trained professionals.
Lisseth sits in the London Middlesex Local Immigration Partnership Sub- Employment Committee, she also belongs to the “Welcoming Ambassadors” committee run by the City of London, and she is a Sunday school leader at her church, where she also enjoys another of her passions - singing in the choir.
“I may not be a doctor, but I am still helping people reach their potential and succeed in life,” she says. “There is a brilliant pool of talent out there that employers need to be aware of. Everybody needs a chance. Diversity is what makes Canada a great nation.”