Navigating a New Work World

Prossy Nambatya works for the Atkinson Foundation. She’s also part of a new leadership learning program called the Power Lab. Prossy is a newcomer to Canada from Uganda where she worked with a civil society organization that advocates for the rights of workers in the informal sector. She is pictured here with Power Lab partners, fifth from the right in the front row.

It takes courage, patience, resilience and determination to start a new life as a stranger in a new country. I cannot talk about my journey to and within Canada without mentioning Bethlehem United Shelter. It was my very first home in Toronto – a home that put a roof over my head, gave me clothing, fed me four meals a day, exposed me to life in Canada and built a sense of community with other residents. As a home for the homeless, it was an opportunity for me to learn a lot about Canada, poverty in all its kinds, and was also a means of survival.

I arrived in December 2017 when winter was at its peak and the asylum-seeking process was hectic and scary. The schedule of activities at the shelter was fixed. I was penniless and needed a job to make ends meet. The list of challenges was endless although it was a very good learning experience that shaped my life in Canada.

First Steps Forward

December turned out to be a long and terrible month. I remember sitting on my bed on Christmas Day with tears rolling down my face. I called my children and hearing their voices say “we miss you” and, “love you so much, Mummy” were like thorns piercing my heart. At this point I could not express to them how broke I was. I assured them that things would work out and we would reunite as a family in the nearest future.

By January, I was fully engaged with the asylum-seeking process knowing this would be the only way that I could access different services. Figuring out transportation to different places was a challenge, whether it be by foot or securing tokens. Sometimes I would miss the stops and end up paying extra tokens to get to the intended destination.

Locating places was another challenge as I had to learn the directions of Google Maps in terms of west, east, north and south. On many occasions I would board a bus or a train going the wrong way. I also thought all signs for “Subway” meant the location of the train. One time I entered the Subway but couldn’t find a path to the Northbound trains. A very kind gentleman informed me I was in Subway, the restaurant. He smiled and I smiled back. He was probably laughing at me, not laughing with me.

It took me almost four months to get a work permit, which felt like a year given the pressure I was under from home with demands for school fees and the upkeep of my children. I had to use my social assistance to send money home to cool down the situation even though it could hardly pay for anything substantial. My children and their caretaker always looked up to me for any necessities for survival. Sometimes I became restless thinking about my adolescent children and the stress they were going through without money to acquire the necessities, and without a mother to assure them that things will be better tomorrow.

The pressure started mounting every single day, and I realized I had a lot of commitments but I had not started work. Many of my newly acquired friends were advising me to either go back to school to get a good job or take any offer whether it was my dream job or not. The day I got my work permit I was overjoyed. It guaranteed that I could expect to have money on me in the next few days and the next morning I went to different job agencies to register for employment opportunities. I was hopeful that I would get a job in line with my previous work experience where I spent over 20 years working with civil society organizations in the community development sector and advocating for social justice. To my surprise, there were no offers of a job in my field or even close to what I was doing back home.

The Job of Looking for a Job

Looking for a job was on my to do list everyday. From the train I would jump on a bus again to find the agency. I found myself moving in the cold, walking long distances to save money on transport, spending the whole day without a meal and by the end of day my whole body was aching and my fingers frozen as I would constantly get out my phone to trace the different locations.

On one particular day as I was heading far north, I was staring out the bus window desperately thinking about a job and I saw a sign post saying hiring now. I decided to jump out at the nearest stop to check on the “Hiring Now” poster. Getting closer to it, I saw they wanted carpenters and plumbers. Out of desperation I called them, knowing very well that the only time I had ever held any carpentry tool was when fixing the loose nail on my curtain box. I knew nothing about plumbing.

It took me a week from the time I registered with job agencies to get my very first call for work. Before I could even hear about the terms of work, I expressed my joy and appreciation. The job was with a meat packing factory and the temperature of the work area was around two degrees Celsius which made my heart skip a bit. Having experienced the cold temperatures for almost four months I could not take a risk and I declined the offer. I held high hopes, however, that one day I would land my dream job.

Finding Work

Finally I received news that the agency had found me a job.

The news gave me a lot of excitement as I thought that I had landed my dream job. I left for work that night to a manufacturing and packaging factory. The very first words from the supervisor were: “This is not time to sleep, you came here to make money and we are not ready to pay for your sleep but for your accomplishments”. Those were the orientation and welcome remarks. This was my very first time working in such an environment. I was packing cosmetic items and putting them on a conveyor belt. The speed was so terrible for a beginner that I got lost along the way and clogged the system. The supervisor, upon realising that I was the problem, yelled at me and said that I needed to work at the same speed and accuracy as others, otherwise she would tell the manager to get rid of me. Not being used to the yelling and intimidation, I found myself stressed and unable to perform. I worked under tension and was panicking throughout the whole process. At around 3 am, the line broke down and attempts to repair it failed. Four people were told to go home, including me. My shift was to end at 7.30 am but it was terminated at 4 am.

The next evening I went back to my new workplace determined to pick up the pace. Reaching there, my name was not on the list and the supervisor asked whether the agency had told me to report for a second day. I told her that the first time the agency called me, they told me they had finally got me a job. She laughed and informed me that agency workers are temporary and can only report for work after receiving a call from their agency, so if you are not contacted then there is no employment that day. By now it was midnight and I miserably walked out of the factory and went back home. I had a sleepless night and early in the morning I called the job agency to know whether I could work that night. They told me they get calls from employers later in the day so I had to wait until I got their call.

I later received another call from an agency asking for my resume to be sent within one hour from the time I received the call. I sent my resume of programme work and advocacy, but upon receiving it the lady called saying she needed a resume suitable for a factory job. I managed to edit my resume in 30 minutes and after a few days was called for an interview.

On the day of the interview, a lady demonstrated to us a labelling process and handed us the materials to repeat what she had demonstrated. She had probably done this kind of work for a couple of years. I could not do it as fast as her because I had not had time to practice it. She asked me why I could not be as perfect and as fast as she was, a question that made me feel unworthy and I left with no hope for a job.

I became restless and debated whether to continue looking for work or to go to school. I perused the courses funded through Ontario Works and I landed on a Medical Receptionist Diploma. I was excited, aiming to do it in the shortest time possible and then start work. I booked an orientation appointment with Skills for Change, an agency that offered that course. To my disappointment, during the orientation it was mentioned that the course was for people who had completed their refugee hearing process. Things were not better at all.

At this point I met Lisa Trudel, a career specialist with the Centre for Education & Training, who listened to me and reviewed my education and work record. She helped me streamline my resume and gave me confidence that I could get a job within my field of experience. Despite being desperately in need of a job, I wanted a workplace I could go everyday and be happy, full of energy and ready to face challenges. My aim was to get a job that would facilitate my growth professionally and personally.

Finding Decent Work

I shared my resume with a friend who promised to share it with other people. A week later I got an email from the Atkinson Foundation, an organization that advocates for social and economic justice. When I visited their website the catch phrase for me was “decent work.” I was coordinating a programme on decent work with informal economy workers back home before coming to Canada. I was so excited and enthusiastic to visit their offices for an interview. I found a place whose philosophy resonated with me. The Foundation was open to exploring my abilities, working with me to gain Canadian experience and supporting my professional and personal growth. The Atkinson Foundation gave me an opportunity to tell the untold stories of newcomers and especially refugees struggling for opportunities to earn a living. The very first person I talked to at the Foundation made me value myself, my education and my previous work experience. The staff received me with open hearts and hands and allowed me to explore the world of work in Canada. I was given back my confidence and assurance that I am worthy.

Following the interview, I officially reported for the job after one week and my first day at work was memorable. I woke up at 5 am, four hours to the time the office opened. I was anxious, figuring out how quickly I could reach the office. I recalled the time I was in a train delay and we could go nowhere for 45 minutes. I could not imagine that happening to me on my first day of work. With that in mind, I left for work two hours early for a 35-minute journey.

My first days at work were exciting and challenging. I had to learn so many new things, back home I thought I knew how to use the computer because I could type out my reports and send and receive emails, but the technology and the advanced way of using the computer at my new job was very educative. Given the different cultures I also had to be careful with my communication, especially when sending out emails to ensure that I was using the proper words. I remember writing “Hi,” delete, “Hello,” delete, “Dear,” and asking myself the proper terms I could use to address other people.

After receiving my first pay cheque I was able to call home and tell my family that I had a job. Very excited, I also informed them I would be sending them money since I had already received pay. I did not inform them earlier because I could not believe that I had landed my dream job. I wanted to announce my success story with evidence that I am in the system. The evidence was my pay cheque. I felt a lot of fulfillment and self-worth.

Working as an Administrative Assistant is giving me an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of a Canadian organisation. I read and learned about great men and women who shaped the history of Canada and advocated for fundamental work, health and other social and economic issues on which we thrive. Interestingly I realised there was still need for continuous advocacy as some of these issues keep falling short of standards. I am proud to be provided with a good start to explore the possibilities of professional and personal growth.

An Irresistible Journey

The time I spent looking for a job was challenging and rewarding because it opened my eyes to the job search challenges for people without Canadian experience – who must navigate the world of work in a new country. Majority of us get work through temporary agencies and with no job security, no control over work hours, sometimes no minimum wage and no room for training to get acquainted with the job.

The asylum seeking process is another stressful exercise that usually blocks our thinking and affects our mental health as well as self-esteem. So many times our job search efforts are frustrated by the workplace policies and systems that emphasize Canadian experience and residential status.

My new job gave me the zeal to write my story and I wrote it with a smile, having learned that history is written by the courageous. I am humbled to be part of the Atkinson Foundation family which is living its mission of promoting social and economic justice to everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, gender and immigration status.