On the first morning after his arrival in Canada, Mustafa Alio stared out the window and thought to himself, “Why is there so much dust outside?”
It was not dust that was swirling in the air. They were snowflakes.
Mustafa Alio laughed as he recounted this experience.
“I had never seen snow before,” he said. “In fact, the flight I took to Canada from Syria was the first time I was on a plane. Everything was new to me.”
The year was 2007. Mustafa was 23 at the time.
His experience sounds like a classic story of someone who came from humble beginnings and was entering the big world for the first time. That was not the case with Mustafa. At the age of 21, he was already a regional manager for the largest telecommunications company in Syria, overseeing 81 stores in his hometown of Latakia. He had worked his way up the company while completing his business administration and finance degree at Tishreen University. He was also a professional basketball player—he played the positions of point guard and shooting guard.
“People thought I was crazy when I told them I was moving to Canada,” he said. “I had a dream job, an apartment, and a car of my own in my 20s when people usually reach this position in their 30s.”
Even though the work and pay were good, Mustafa was not satisfied. To get to the next level, he knew that he had to put in at least a decade of work as a regional manager, and for someone who was as adventurous and ambitious as him, it was too long.
Mustafa’s original plan was to either move to the United States or Europe.
“I didn’t even know Canada existed as a country,” he says.
A chance encounter with a professor convinced him that Canada was the better destination, and Toronto in particular.
“I heard that the education system was better here,” he said. “And also that the people were nicer.”
His first few years in Canada were tough. Between his classes and his work, he was getting less than four hours of sleep each day.
“I had school from 8:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.,” he said. “Then I came home at 4 p.m., and sleep till 8 p.m. At 9 p.m., I would go to the shawarma place where I was working, and work there until 4 a.m. Once I was done there, I would go to the Tim Horton’s café near my school and study till 8 a.m.”
Sunday was the only day he could catch up on some sleep.
After the shawarma shop, Mustafa worked at a call centre. The hours became a little more manageable, but it was no less stressful. “People would swear at me and complain about their problems and my accent all day,” he said.
Looking back at those years, Mustafa did not feel resentment or anger. Instead, he felt a kind of gratitude.
“I mean, yes, those days weren’t fun at all,” he said. “But they also molded me. They made me more resilient. You know that saying: what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”
Eventually, Mustafa earned a postgraduate marketing certificate from George Brown College. He also worked at a bank as an investment advisor.
In 2011, the Syrian conflict created a refugee crisis, and that became Mustafa’s foray into the non-profit immigrant sector. He was not thinking about it at that moment though. Those days were a frantic blur of organizing and networking as he and his friends became involved in any and all activities to help the Syrian refugees fleeing the war.
“We divided ourselves into different committees to meet the needs of the refugees,” he said. “I co-led the employment committee and started creating skill profiles for many of the professionals among the refugees.”
Realizing that this work was becoming increasingly important and useful for the refugees as they settled in their new homes, Mustafa and two of his friends co-founded the Refugee Career Jumpstart Project.
“People don’t realize this, but refugees bring a diverse skill set,” he said. “They had to migrate and adapt to different situations, so you’d have professional teachers who know how to code or lawyers who have experience with construction. These are strengths that are not usually recognized by employers and policymakers here.”
Today, Mustafa is one of the key members of the Syrian Refugees Jobs Roundtable project, a multi-stakeholder initiative in Toronto led by Ryerson University’s Hire Immigrants program. The initiative features representatives from employers to service providers, including WES, and the Canadian government—Senator Ratna Omidvar chairs the meetings.
When asked what World Refugee Day (June 20) meant to him, Mustafa thought for a moment.
“It’s an important day, obviously,” he said. “I hope this day helps Canadians recognize that refugees are a group of people who will give a lot more back than take in.”
“Refugees are unlike any other people, in my view,” he continued. “You fall in love once, you lose it. You fall in love again, and then you become protective. You become protective of Canada. I became protective of Canada and I didn’t even realize I was being that way.”
With his experience helping Syrian refugees find employment and being involved in the work of advocating for immigrants and refugees in general, Mustafa now hopes to build on this work. If he can, he would like to travel to one of the refugee camps in Turkey or Cyprus and actually work on the ground there.
“I want to give back as much as I can,” he said.
When asked if he had anything else he would like to say, he replied, “We have, as refugees, so many stories,” he said. “I want to continue learning about them, and share them. I hope Canadians also make the effort to understand us more, learn about our journeys, and give us the opportunity to succeed.”
“When you arrive here in Canada as a refugee, your first thought is: I want to rest for a bit. Then you think: I need to start.”
Mustafa, it seems, is just getting started.