Immigrant Success Stories: Valerie Sargisyan
Wednesday | August 18, 2021 | by Wilma Lee
World Education Services (WES) believes in the power of storytelling and shared resources. In 2019, we reached out to immigrants across North America. We asked about their reasons for leaving home, their challenges along the way, and the advice they would like to share with other newcomers.
In this new blog series, we are now sharing their stories with you. Below is Valerie’s.
Click here to hear from others who have contributed their voices to WES.
In 1990, Valerie’s life was turned upside-down when she and her family were forced to flee their home due to racially-inspired violence in Baku. Taking refuge in mountainous Karabakh, Valerie assisted her father in an underground hospital during the ensuing Nagorno-Karabakh War. She was only 15.
Then, she pursued undergraduate studies in Natural Sciences at the University in Stepanakert. After graduation, she worked as a laboratory technician in a military hospital.
In 2003, Valerie had just gotten married and moved to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. She and her husband began talking about moving to a new country. They did not have a specific destination in mind, but they wanted to go somewhere that was English-speaking, that would legally accept them and welcome them as educated professionals, and where they felt they would be able to build the kind of life they wanted.
Valerie said she “left no stone unturned” when researching potential destinations. She asked people she knew, consulted Reddit forums, scoured government resources, and visited every page of the Canadian immigration website. This was how the couple chose Toronto.
“You just read and read, and it all adds up to a fuller picture,” she said. But the immigration website especially spoke to her, saying: “[Toronto is] where you need to live and breathe.”
Moving to Toronto
In preparation for this big move, Valerie taught herself English with books and CDs. She says that the process took her six months. After this, she completed an Academic English preparatory course, passed the TOEFL exam (which is needed to gain entry into the American University of Armenia), and completed a master’s degree in political science in 2007.
It took Valerie and her family four years to set off to Toronto under the Federal Skilled Worker Program.
Extremely organized in her approach to moving, Valerie put together a detailed spreadsheet to ensure every task on it would be efficiently completed upon the family’s arrival. Among the items on the list were: opening a bank account, securing an apartment (not just any apartment, but the one located within the boundary of the school district with the high school Valerie had selected for her son), registering her son for school, etc.
She felt prepared to start her new life. But there were still challenges in store.
Challenges and Strategies
Moving to Toronto with her family involved many challenges for Valerie. She had to be proactive and courageous to navigate confusing and unfamiliar systems. However, this was necessary in order to get her son into school and locate affordable housing in a good neighborhood.
First, Valerie researched her options. She consulted community and settlement organizations extensively to take advantage of programs and services that were most suited to her needs. The Toronto Public Library, the YMCA, and a program called “Toronto’s Welcome Policy” (which is available through Toronto Parks and Recreation) are a few of the programs that she used most extensively and endorses most enthusiastically.
Valerie secured her first full-time job through a placement agency. But it was not ideal. To begin with, the placement agency took a percentage of her earnings as their fee for helping her find the job. She felt like they were taking advantage of her. Additionally, she completed interviews but failed to secure jobs that she felt qualified to hold.
However, Valerie did not want to give up on herself. She contacted the organization’s human resources department and asked for interview feedback. Doing this put some power back into her hands by reducing the uncertainty around why she was not offered the position. It helped her improve for the next job interview.
She kept her eyes out for other opportunities and connected with new people proactively to expand her network. She focused on enriching her résumé as much as possible by taking as many opportunities as she could and accumulating practical experience in Canada.
Today, Valerie works as a program assistant at the University of Toronto.
Tips for New Immigrants
For successful integration, Valerie believes it is crucial to connect and interact with local people. This has helped make her feel even more at home in Toronto, and it also helped her better understand local norms and cultural references.
As every piece of information is vital when you are starting over in a new country, Valerie believes it is important to “[exchange] experiences with immigrants who have been successful in their journey from a newcomer to a fully integrated member of society.” In further consideration of what this might look like, she said: “maybe like a peer-knowledge-sharing platform or almost like a big-brother/sister system, but for newcomers.”
Four years in, not only Valerie has completed further studies (with a postgraduate certificate in public administration at the Chang School at Ryerson University), but her son has also joined the kinesiology program at the city university. Outside of school, he enrolled in recreational ski programs and has become an excellent skier.
Although she has successfully passed many hurdles, Valerie strives to continue her progress. She wishes to secure a permanent job with benefits, which would allow her to breathe more easily as she completes the rest of her studies.
In the long-term, she wishes to find meaningful work with a high level of responsibility and good room for growth. Among the many possibilities that her studies will present, she says that she would most like to work as a policy analyst. She would also like to work in research or operations in the corporate sector.
From Yerevan, Armenia, to Toronto, Canada, Valerie has appreciated every step of her journey—regardless of challenges thrown in her way. In her words: “My job, my office, my Toronto? They are my life, right here and right now, and I love it.”
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