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

  • Giuliani advises no Mueller interview without informant info

    World News CTV News
    WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Donald Trump's legal team would advise that he refuse to submit to an interview with special counsel Robert Mueller unless the team can review classified information shared with select lawmakers about the origins of the FBI investigation into Russia's election meddling, Trump's personal lawyer said Sunday. Source
  • Conservative, leftist appear headed for runoff in Colombia

    World News CTV News
    BOGOTA -- The conservative protege of a powerful former president and a leftist former guerrilla who has galvanized voters with an anti-establishment message appeared headed for what promises to be a polarizing runoff election for president in Colombia. Source
  • 'Free yourself' of Liberals, Coalition Avenir Quebec leader tells anglos

    Canada News CTV News
    LEVIS, Que. -- The leader of the Coalition Avenir Quebec urged English-speaking Quebecers on Sunday to liberate themselves from Premier Philippe Couillard's Liberals in October's provincial election. "Free yourself!" Francois Legault told supporters during the closing speech of a party meeting in Levis, on the outskirts of Quebec City. Source
  • Crews cleaning up oil spill at Kinder Morgan station north of Kamloops, B.C.

    Canada News CBC News
    Crews using an emergency response trailer and vacuum trucks are working to clean up a crude oil spill at a Kinder Morgan station north of Kamloops, B.C. The provincial Ministry of Environment said a flow meter has leaked about 100 litres of crude oil into the ground at the Darfield station. Source
  • Crew of 27 Nova Scotians dispatched to help fight Alberta forest fires

    Canada News CTV News
    HALIFAX -- A crew of 27 people from Nova Scotia's Department of Natural Resources was in Alberta Sunday to help control wildfires sweeping across parts of the province. A spokesman with the department said the crew arrived in Edmonton Saturday evening and will remain in Alberta for two weeks. Source
  • George H.W. Bush taken to hospital in Maine

    World News CBC News
    Former U.S. president George H.W. Bush was hospitalized Sunday in Maine after he experienced low blood pressure and fatigue, a spokesperson said. Bush, 93, was awake, alert and not in any discomfort, said spokesperson Jim McGrath. Bush will spend at least a few days in the hospital for observation. Source
  • Indigenous chiefs, activists attend Kinder Morgan protest in Montreal

    Canada News CTV News
    MONTREAL -- Three prominent Quebec-area Indigenous chiefs were among the hundreds of people who gathered in Montreal on Sunday to protest the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion. Assembly of First Nations regional Chief Ghislain Picard, Mohawk Chief Serge Simon and Innu Chief Jean-Charles Pietacho spoke out against the project, citing the need to show solidarity with First Nations and other groups in British Columbia who are fighting against it. Source
  • Environment Canada issues air quality, heat statements for southern Ontario

    Canada News CTV News
    Summer weather is making itself known in southern Ontario, with rising temperatures bringing along the season’s first special air quality statement from Environment Canada. Hot and sunny conditions in southwestern Ontario and the Greater Toronto Area comes with the possibility of high levels of air pollution Sunday afternoon through Monday, Environment Canada warns. Source
  • Flash flooding reported in Maryland as heavy rain soaks area

    World News CTV News
    ELLICOTT CITY, Md. -- Flash floods struck a Maryland community wracked by similar flooding in 2016, authorities said, and water rescues were being carried out as raging brown waters surged through the streets Sunday. News outlets showed photos and video of turbulent water rushing down Main Street in Ellicott City, some 13 miles (20 kilometres) west of Baltimore. Source
  • Authorities: Flash flood surges through Maryland community

    World News CTV News
    ELLICOTT CITY, Md. -- Flash floods struck a Maryland city on Sunday that had been wracked by similar devastation two years earlier, prompting emergency rescues as raging waters engulfed cars and rose above the first floor of some buildings, authorities said. Source