SAINT JOHN – From outright verbal harassment on the streets to having to change their name to get job interviews, three newcomer women who wear the headscarf say they face discrimination in their job search, workplace and the community at large as they try to build a life in the Port City.
Hiba, who is originally from Egypt, has been harassed on the streets multiple times in the last year. The latest one happened just a couple of weeks before she spoke to Huddle. A man called out to her while she was walking, and looked her in the eye as he swore at her, she said.
“He told me ‘you little shit, fuck you, and go away’,” she said.
She’s finding it difficult to see the bright side because ever since she landed in Saint John nearly two years ago, she hasn’t felt accepted, she hasn’t been able to find a job, and she hasn’t been able to make meaningful social connections with people from outside of her own culture.
“I got depression when I got here and even now I’m being treated for depression because of how badly I feel that I’m treated here. That I can’t even find the opportunity to make friends, to work, or anything,” she said. “I faced direct discrimination a lot, I can’t be positive about it. I feel rejected.”
Hiba, an engineer, says she has been applying for hundreds of jobs everywhere for a year, but only got three interviews. Two of those interviews were at “diverse places that worked with newcomers,” she said. One interview was at a local company, but she had to change the name on her resume to sound more local before she got the call.
She didn’t get the job, though she felt that she fit the requirements. She found out later that someone local without the same experiences got the job.
“How can we integrate into this culture? How can we feel like it’s our new home? It’s not. For me, I feel like I’m just floating and seeing like everybody’s life going on and I can’t fit in here at all. I can’t find a job, I can’t find friends outside of my culture, this is not going to help me plan my life or feel like I have stability here.”
Her difficult experience is shared by her friend Aida, who came to Saint John as a principal immigration applicant with her husband and children on tow in the summer of 2019. With a bachelor’s degree in computer science and a diploma in education, Aida initially targeted IT and education jobs.
She said she knew that she might have to “start from scratch” when she moved here, but it’s been hard. After applying to all sorts of jobs including retail jobs, she didn’t get any calls for an interview. After seven months, she was only able to get a call centre job, from which she was laid off due to Covid-19. She took the job so she could gain “Canadian experience,” she said.
Now she’s thinking of going back to school because she believes it would be easier to find a job if she has a Canadian certificate.
“If you accepted a job in the starting level, and this is happening with me and my husband, people think that you should feel lucky that ‘we accepted you and you should stay in this position for a long time because you’re an immigrant, you don’t have Canadian experience, so you should be thankful that you have a starting job’,” she said.
At work, after three months, she made only two friends, who are also immigrants.
“Other people tried not to look at me and not communicate with me, so it’s hard,” she said.
“I tried to be friendly. When they organized a potluck [at work], I bring something from our culture, our cuisine, and they liked it, but I noticed that they talked with me as little as possible, except for one or two (people).”
She also faced what she wouldn’t call experiences of discrimination but the made her “feel weird” on the bus.
“I noticed that when I’m alone in the bus without my kids, people are afraid of me. That’s how I feel. But I think they’re afraid of me because they don’t know anything about us. When you don’t know anything about this culture and this human being, you’re afraid of her,” she said, adding this happened many times. “I noticed the way they looked at me. It’s different. Because when I take the bus with my kids they’re friendly. They start to smile or say hi to the kids.”
Aida said her experience is not all bad. She has lovely neighbours who welcomed her family and even brought Christmas presents for her children.
I love Saint John and I love the people,” she said. “But sometimes I miss working in a place that’s not afraid of me.”
Aisha is another woman who also faced difficulties in finding a job. She and her husband arrived almost two years ago. Like Aida, she is also the primary applicant.
The software engineer said even though she’s worked at multinationals in places like Dubai and Qatar, she has not been able to find work in Saint John. When she did find a couple of opportunities, she didn’t get any calls for interviews.
She found many possible opportunities in Halifax and Ottawa but said she had chosen New Brunswick because she has friends here and isn’t looking to relocate outside the province.
Instead, she has been told to volunteer to gain Canadian experience. She’s been asked to help an organization train their staff on cloud-storage systems, and while she likes to help, she said the way that free work is sold as a way to gain Canadian experience is “annoying.”
She eventually found a remote job with a company outside of Canada. While it pays well, she wants a job locally.
I wanted to be more connected to the city. I wanted to make use of my skills and experience here, to serve here,” she said.
Aisha also has been approached by people asking about her cultural background, saying she remains open to conversations.
One time at a coffee shop, a man came to join her and her husband at their table, asking, “do you have coffee shops like this where you come from?”
“He was so shocked when he found out I’m a software engineer and my husband is working on a PhD and he’s currently working in Saint John and we are paying taxes,” she said, adding people also assume they cannot speak English well.
“This is maybe a small problem because they’re still not used to immigrants. This will take time but it’s on the right track. People will get used to the immigrants and they’ll know that we’re well educated and we came here to be part of the community. And we’re skilled enough,” she adds.
But, she said, employers, municipalities and governments should work together to make sure they’re ready to accept the skilled immigrants they’ve invited to come over. Employers need to give immigrants a chance, she said.
“There’s a lot of settlement services for us to settle here, but we can’t. It’s not a one-way street,” Hiba added.
Experience Tougher Than Husbands
The women say their headscarf makes them more visibly different, making the experiences they face more difficult than those of their husbands.
All of their husbands found local jobs more quickly, about a couple of months after arrival. Meanwhile, it took at least seven months for the women to find a job locally. Hiba still doesn’t have a job.
“My husband didn’t have any volunteering experience, he didn’t have any Canadian experience, he barely did even one percent of what I did. But even then he got a job very easily,” she said. “He doesn’t look very Arab. He looks European in a way. So it was easier for him to find a job and to be able to connect with people.”
“I also find that his experience is different on the streets. People talk to him and they don’t talk to me. He didn’t believe the experience that I had until he heard a racial [comment yelled] at me. He realized that I’m being seen differently,” she added.
“Most of the people that I met are shocked that I am an engineer. Everybody thinks that I’m uneducated. Whenever they see me with [the headscarf] they assume, did you get any education at all?” Hiba said.
Aida’s husband also got a job two months after landing and people “talk with him normally,” she said, though he’s still stuck in a starting role after a year.
“People notice us more,” Aida says about her experience as a woman wearing the headscarf. “All the people ask us, are you a refugee? Are you from Syria? This happens all the time.”
Shauna Cole, a human resources specialist and instructor at UNB Saint John’s MBA program, said the complaints from the women aren’t surprising. “I’m sorry to say, but no I wasn’t [surprised].”
Cole is biracial and has been speaking out about the lack of inclusion in the workspace. In her career, Cole, whose skin is light, said she’s heard a hiring manager say they don’t want to meet a candidate because “he is an N word.”
“Because sometimes people are too comfortable saying stuff in front of me, so I see a lot of things that are so sad and wrong,” she said.
She’s also seeing some of the difficulties faced by the women affecting her MBA students who come from various parts of the world.
“This experience that these women brought forward is very much aligned with experiences that I’ve heard told from the context of students who are newcomers and who are trying to secure their internship or their first employment opportunity post-schooling,” she said.
She says newcomers often face difficulties before even meeting an employer because of their names. She said employers often assume people with ethnic names aren’t fluent in English.
“And it’s not just newcomers, it can be Canadians too, who perhaps have names that are aligned with their culture and heritage and background,” she said, adding names that sound African or Black experience this for sure. It’s happened with her own family members.
“I’ve seen employers screen out resumes on the basis of the individual’s name, because along with that comes a whole set of assumptions about that person.”
She said she’s heard many times of people who changed their name to sound more “local” or shortened their name. The difference can be no interviews at all to many interviews. “All of a sudden, they go from zero interviews last week to five interviews this week. It’s drastic,” she said.
Cole confirms that experiences of exclusion like that of Aida’s also happens to some of her students. She’s heard similar experiences being shared on a call she had with a group of international graduates.
“I’ve spent this time with this crew of students that have significant talents and experiences. Now they’re going to have a master’s degree, and they can’t get job interviews,” she said. “I think a lot of that discussion really ties into reservations around this mystical Canadian experience…otherwise I think that this group of highly capable students would be getting interviews at the same rate as the local ones. But that’s not the case right now.”
When people feel excluded in the workplace, like Aida, Cole said it would hinder their ability to succeed at the job, and affecting their mental health. Exclusion hinders the company’s success too.
“You’re certainly not going to be getting the best results if that workforce isn’t operating as a team, and in the end being exclusionary to one person. I think that exposes you to potentially some additional risk. I think you’re absolutely not getting the optimum value for yourself as well,” she said.
Names of the immigrant women have been changed for their protection.
This is Part 1 of a two-part series about discrimination faced by newcomer women who wear the headscarf.