Spotlight on Success: Joseph Akhras
Friday | May 18, 2018 | by Anne Greenwood
Joseph Akhras is an Academic Records Specialist at WES in Toronto. He came to Canada in 2016 as a Syrian refugee. We recently spoke to him about his path to Canada, his future plans, and his hopes for other refugees and immigrants coming to Canada.
WES Advisor: Tell us a little about yourself.
Joseph: I was born and raised in Aleppo City, Syria, where I lived for 18 years. Around the time of my high school graduation, the war was getting worse. I went to Lebanon to write the SAT exam, but never returned to Syria. It was too dangerous. Then, I lived in Lebanon for four years while I completed a Bachelor of Science degree in medical laboratory sciences at the University of Balamand in Beirut. But I first came to Canada as a Syrian refugee.
How did you come to Canada?
My journey here really started when I went to Lebanon to write the SAT exam. I was supposed to go for a week, but I never returned home. The driver who took me to the airport was shot on his return home. My family contacted me in Lebanon to tell me it was no longer safe to return to Syria. What was supposed to be a one-week trip turned into four years living in Lebanon.
My family and I applied to come to Canada while we were living in Lebanon—we did medical exams and attended interviews, but until that point, we really did not know what was going to happen. We had very few options—none of them positive—prior to Canada. I was happy to come to Canada because I already knew English and I knew the culture through music and media.
In December 2015, I arrived in Canada as a Syrian refugee. I had only one semester remaining to complete my undergraduate degree and I tried to transfer to a university in Ontario. Yet, I could not find a university that would accept my prior credits. And so, I returned to Lebanon. It was a risky move because I arrived as a refugee; then, after just three weeks in Canada, I left. I had to go back to finish my degree.
Officers detained me at the border of Lebanon. I waited seven or eight hours. Finally, I was given a 72-hour permit to stay in the country. For four months, I remained on a one-week visa cycle, constantly living with the fear of deportation. When I finished my degree, I returned to Canada. I was afraid that the country would not receive me—because I had previously entered as a refugee and left after just a few weeks. I remember very clearly what happened as I entered Canada: The immigration officer said, “Welcome back.”
What was your job search like in Canada?
I knew that at the time, my knowledge of Arabic would be in demand and that would differentiate me from other applicants. Canada was welcoming an influx of Syrian refugees, some of whom did not speak English. I was looking for employers who might need my language skills. This was around the time WES launched its Refugee Pilot Project, and they were looking for someone who knew Syrian culture and the Syrian education system.
I came across a posting on Indeed to work on the project as an Academic Records Specialist with WES. I saw the job and thought: This is a perfect fit!
Now, I have been working here for nearly two years.
Did you have your credentials assessed?
I was searching for ways to have my credentials assessed when I first arrived. When I applied for the job at WES, I knew it was exactly what I was looking for. I had my credentials evaluated at WES; my education is comparable to a bachelor’s degree in Canada.
I wish I had been aware of this service when I first arrived in Canada; perhaps I would not have had to return to Lebanon to finish my degree. I do not know if that would have made a difference when I was applying to Canadian universities. I will never know. But, I am glad to know now that my bachelor’s degree is comparable and relevant here.
What has been the most challenging part of moving to Canada as a Syrian refugee?
I had a fairly easy transition to Canada. My education and English skills helped. I was in a positive environment; it gave me room to be myself while growing and maturing. The hardest part was seeing my parents struggle with daily tasks because they do not speak English. They had to rely on their kids; it was a difficult transition for them. They are now taking language classes and have found a community of support. They have friends with whom they are learning and sharing experiences.
What is your advice for others coming to Canada (either as a refugee or under similar circumstances)?
I see lots of people come to Canada who find it hard because they had something in mind, and then the reality is different than their expectations. They become depressed. My advice is to keep an open mind about opportunities. Focus only on what you can influence and change—those things you have control over. Lots will happen that is out of your control. You cannot do anything about that. Opportunities will come; you just have to be ready and open to them when they do. Life is abundant.
What do the next five years look like for you?
I used to make long-term plans. But then every time, something happened. I am not planning that far in advance anymore. Plans always change. I learned that lesson. Now, I do not plan that far in the future. I am making the most of the present.
I like to set goals and plans for a year at a time. This way, I am getting better results because I have more control over the near future. This year, I am working on developing skills that you don’t learn in the classroom. I am learning how to learn and exploring learning techniques that are most effective for me. I am also working on my communication and decision-making skills, and developing my emotional intelligence.
Joseph continues to work at WES as an Academic Records Specialist. He is developing his skills to move his career forward. He is happy to be in Canada, although he says he will never quite get used to the long, cold winters.
Can a credential evaluation help you achieve your goals in Canada? Learn more about Canadian credential evaluations here.