Gulya Taubaldieva, Fitore Bajraktari and Sarah Xu, all CIWA grads and now DCC staff, with crisis counsellor Edwin Morales (back) helping out at our Lend An Ear Breakfast on September 22, 2016.

Every year thousands of newcomers to Canada settle in Calgary. In 2014 we welcomed over 19,000 permanent residents to our city, and by 2020 Calgary’s total immigrant population is estimated to reach almost half a million.

Within that population are thousands of women with impressive resumes brimming with professional experience and skills. Despite this, they face many barriers and rejection when they try to continue their careers in Canada.

When Cristina Balamban, Human Resources Manager at Distress Centre, came to Canada from the Philippines in 2010 she began searching for a job immediately. At the time she had a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a masters of human resources. She had extensive experience in sales, marketing and administration. But after sending out countless resumes and hearing nothing back, she knew something was missing.

“I found out that they [employers] don’t even look at your resume when you don’t have Canadian experience,” Cristina said. “But how can I get Canadian experience if nobody will give me Canadian experience? It’s like the chicken and the egg.”

She decided to volunteer at Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association (CIWA) to get some Canadian experience and joined their Office Administration Program which at the time was only in its second intake.

The program was developed to combat the issues immigrant women like Cristina faced. The program consists of 14 weeks of classroom training, followed by a ten week practicum in an office administration role.

“We are looking for candidates who have experience back home in office administration, who have a good level of English, and who are ready to learn,” explained Yulia Minakova, Office Administration Coordinator at CIWA. ”The program acts as a bridging program for new immigrants to gain confidence, begin to build a professional network and learn about Canadian culture.”

Yulia believes that both the women and the organization benefit from the program: “Our clients learn so much during their work placements, and I believe they give something meaningful to [the organization].”

Cristina completed her practicum at Alberta Theatre Projects which led to a contract job at Theatre Calgary. Through a contact she made at Theatre Calgary she learned about a job opening at Distress Centre, applied, and was successful. She began working as our Senior Office Administrator/Receptionist in March 2014. Cristina is now Human Resources Manager at Distress Centre.

She then introduced the CIWA Office Administration Program to Distress Centre management.

“It is a win-win for the organization and the student,” she said. “These are highly professional women who just need more experience and a reference from an employer.”

Since Cristina first initiated the partnership with CIWA, we have had six CIWA students complete their practicum at our agency. Of those six, four are currently employed at Distress Centre.

Fitore Bajraktari is an administrative assistant/receptionist, Gulya Taubaldieva is a part-time assistant with fund development, Marta Nabian works part-time as a midnight crisis line worker and Sarah Xu moved from reception to become our senior office administrator.

Understanding Canadian culture

Sarah first came to Canada from China in 2014 and settled in Calgary because she had family already living here. She came alone with her daughter (her husband would not join them till a year later), and immediately placed her daughter in daycare so she could look for full-time work and take a few classes to improve her English.

Like Cristina, she lacked Canadian experience. She joined CIWA’s Office Admin program where she said learning about Canadian culture was hugely beneficial for her, as she found the culture much different from China’s.

She completed her practicum at Distress Centre where she flourished in not only reception work but also in assisting fund development. She started working as our Senior Office Administrator in January 2016 and says she appreciates the inclusive environment of Distress Centre.

“It’s not only what people say, it’s how people behave,” Sarah said. “Sometimes, outside, when you talk to people, they will make you feel like you don’t know anything. But at Distress Centre people are willing to get to know you. I feel really lucky. I have never hesitated to ask questions.”

She also still keeps in contact with several of the other women she met in CIWA’s office program. She has three close friends who all hail from different parts of the world and they meet up monthly to catch up. Sarah said that kind of support is huge when you move across the world away from most of your friends and family.

The power of agencies collaborating

Collaboration is a core value of both Distress Centre and CIWA. When Calgary social agencies organizations work together, we accomplish amazing things, the most important being providing the best possible service for the clients accessing our services.

“We all work for the same goal,” Yulia said. “To provide a better service to clients. For example, if I see that another program might be a better fit for the client, I will refer the client to this program. And if the client needs any other help, like with basic needs or with legal issues, I’ll refer them to the appropriate agency.”

Distress Centre is grateful to have an ongoing partnership with CIWA that provides many excellent students for our agency, as well as staff. Learn more about the partners Distress Centre collaborates with.

Learn more about CIWA.