Montreal plywood factory gives Syrian refugees jobs, French classes

MONTREAL -- When Syrian refugee Garouj Nazarian is asked how he likes working for his boss, the answer comes in choppy English -- but the sentiment shines through.

See Full Article

"So much good," he says with a big smile, offering a thumbs-up to emphasize his joy.

Nazarian, who's been in Canada for about a year, has been working for six months at a Montreal plywood factory owned by Levon Afeyan, who fled Lebanon's civil war with his parents and two brothers in 1975.

"I like working here very well," Nazarian says in English before finishing his answer -- "to take care of my family" -- in Armenian.

Nazarian is one of 12 Syrian refugees among 80 employees and Afeyan intends to hire more as Canada opens its borders to thousands of people fleeing the Assad regime and the Islamic State.

One of the most difficult things for the Syrian refugees Afeyan employs is to accept that their move to Canada is likely a permanent one.

"They haven't grasped that yet," he says. "It takes time for a man to accept the fact that, well, this is it. I've lost (everything)."

Afeyan is the boss, but he's also a pseudo social worker, overseeing a factory where immigrants from conflict zones around the world earn money for their families but also learn life skills and are paid to take French lessons.

His business, Seatply Products Inc., makes curved plywood used in chairs throughout North America.

The employees press plywood and glue veneers to create colourful combinations. They also cut and drill the wood with robotic machines and, while most of the production doesn't require an advanced skill set, it's work.

"They need a job to have respect," Afeyan says. "Respect is a big thing in the Middle East. A man has to be a respectable man. Without a job he doesn't have that."

The low price of oil and the sinking dollar have triggered many layoffs across the country but for Seatply it's time to hire.

On a tour of his factory, Afeyan intercepts Vasudevan Ratnasingham, from Sri Lanka, a country whose civil war ended in 2009 after 26 years.

Ratnasingham has become the supervisor of the pre-pressing veneer department.

"I came to Canada 15 years ago," Ratnasingham says. "This was my first job -- and my last job!"

Not far away is Vrej Baboian, a refugee from Iraq who moved to Canada in 2009.

The former car engineer is a sort of mentor to many Syrians who have started working at Seatply.

"We saw a lot of talent in him," Afeyan states. "He became supervisor of his small team, then floor manager. Now he's a full-fledged foreman in one of our of departments."

Baboian, his walk brimming with confidence, says his first piece of advice to refugees is simple: "Find a job. Don't depend on the government, depend on yourself."

Afeyan believes refugees are often in shock when they arrive and adds that finding a job is critical to integrating successfully.

"We have to give them time," he says. "Let them talk about it and slowly come to the realization that 'I am now a full-fledged Canadian. My children will become Canadian. And Canada is my new home."'

Essential to feeling Canadian, Afeyan adds, is to start speaking English and, particularly in Quebec, French.

Starting in March, a teacher subsidized by the Quebec government will offer French lessons twice a week for free -- inside his factory.

His employees have to stay an extra hour before or after their shifts to learn French, but they are paid to do so.

"We will encourage all of them to take the class and we'll tell them not to say no," he says with a smile.

And aside from language, Afeyan and his managers also teach refugees about elements of daily life other Canadians take for granted, such as efficient driving.

"We teach them about carpooling," he says. "This is a concept they have never heard about. They like it very much by the way."

While all Canadians can't offer refugees jobs, they can help their integration by accepting displaced Syrians "not just as refugees but as new Canadians," according to Afeyan.

He remembers what it felt like to be 16 years old and living in a new country.

"The best thing that ever happened to me is that one of my friends' parents invited me to their dinner," he recalls.

"That was amazing. I was actually invited to someone's house for dinner. I was 16 and someone actually invited me. (Syrians) need to feel part of our society."



Advertisements

Latest Canada & World News

  • Hundreds at Harvard, NYC, Chicago protest China's actions

    World News CTV News
    CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - Hundreds of people gathered Tuesday at Harvard University and near Chinese consulates in New York and Chicago to support protesters who have called for that country's leader to step down amid severe antivirus restrictions in the biggest demonstrations against the government in Beijing in decades. Source
  • Chinese spaceship with 3 aboard docks with space station

    World News CTV News
    BEIJING - Three Chinese astronauts docked early Wednesday with their country's space station, where they will overlap for several days with the three-member crew already onboard and expand the facility to its maximum size. Docking with the Tiangong station came at 5:42 a.m. Source
  • Colorado governor visits gay club shooting memorial

    World News CTV News
    News - Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Tuesday visited the memorial outside a gay club where five people were killed last week, solemnly walking along a line of flowers, crosses and signs bearing the photos and names of the victims outside the building with the club's owners. Source
  • Former premier Jason Kenney resigns from Alberta legislature

    Canada News CTV News
    Thousands asked for it while he was leader and now Jason Kenney has done it, announcing his resignation as a member of the Alberta legislature on social media on Tuesday. The former Alberta premier and United Conservative Party leader made his statement on Twitter, thanking constituents for supporting him during his 25 years in politics. Source
  • Records: Bullet found near 2 teens' bodies came from suspect

    World News CTV News
    INDIANAPOLIS - An unspent bullet found between the bodies of two teenage girls slain in 2017 "had been cycled through" a pistol owned by the suspect in their deaths, according to court documents an Indiana judge ordered released Tuesday. Source
  • Landmark same-sex marriage bill wins Senate passage

    World News CTV News
    WASHINGTON - The Senate passed bipartisan legislation Tuesday to protect same-sex marriages, an extraordinary sign of shifting national politics on the issue and a measure of relief for the hundreds of thousands of same-sex couples who have married since the Supreme Court's 2015 decision that legalized gay marriage countrywide. Source
  • Biden, Macron ready to talk Ukraine, trade in state visit

    World News CTV News
    French President Emmanuel Macron is headed to Washington for the first state visit of Joe Biden's presidency – a revival of diplomatic pageantry that had been put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Biden-Macron relationship had a choppy start. Source
  • Hawaii volcano eruption has some on alert, draws onlookers

    World News CTV News
    HILO, Hawaii - The first eruption in 38 years of the world's largest active volcano is attracting onlookers to a national park for "spectacular" views of the event, and it's also dredging up bad memories among some Hawaii residents who have been through harrowing volcanic experiences in the past. Source
  • Canadian military plane intercepted by Chinese jets 'numerous' times in recent weeks

    Canada News CTV News
    Chinese military jets conducted several intercepts of a Royal Canadian Air Force patrol plane as it flew surveillance sorties from Japan as part of an international effort to enforce sanctions against North Korea, the Department of National Defence confirmed Tuesday. Source
  • Report: Many female Israeli conscripts suffer sexual abuse

    World News CTV News
    JERUSALEM - Roughly one in four women performing compulsory national service in Israel's police force and prison service have suffered sexual abuse on the job, according to a report by Israel's official government watchdog agency. Source