Meet our Clients
If you were asked to fill someone's life with opportunities for success, how would you do it? Would you offer them encouragement and support, helping them get ahead? At COSTI, we understand that success means different things to different people. We believe that by filling people's lives with opportunities for success, we're helping build a strong and prosperous community.
Our clients share their experiences.
Adham Al Azhari
1st Prize: Grades 9 to 12 2018 COSTI Refugees & Human Rights Child & Youth Poetry Contest
Khaled Abdulwahed arrived in Canada the winter of 2016. He had fled from Syria to Lebanon three years earlier. The war in Syria and the threat that something terrible would happen to him because of his political activism left him with little or no choice, he had to leave. While Khaled was presented with a number of options for relocation, he wanted to come to Canada where he believed that as a young adult of 22, a good education, opportunities for personal growth and a happy life were attainable.
Counsellors from COSTI’s two key services involved in the Syrian Refugee Initiative, the Resettlement Assistance Program and Client Support Services were involved in welcoming over 2,200 Syrian refugees in four months. Khaled was one of the newcomers COSTI helped, along with the support of countless community groups and organizations.
"When I first arrived in Canada, I felt safe, happy and excited to start my English classes. And now? Now I’m already looking for employment and feel confident because I know the city of Toronto much better so I’m much more comfortable travelling throughout the city alone. I’ve become friends with people who are from countries all around the world, and am more accepting of people from different cultures because of my new friendships and understanding. The biggest struggle for me is being alone and not having my family with me to support me."
Lana Qaduomi, former Client Support Services Support Worker and now a Manager with COSTI and volunteer with the Syrian Canadian Foundation, connected with Khaled well before he found his first home in Canada, providing him with information on services and activities available to him. "He has a lot of potential. He is enrolled in English language classes and is looking forward to the future, pursuing university studies. I initially helped him find his first home, through the generosity of two women willing to share their accommodations with him. I continue to connect with him and check-in to make sure that he has everything he needs and that he is still on track with his educational and employment goals."
"Canada is the country of my dreams and I hope to achieve those dreams," says Khaled. "For me, COSTI is like a beehive, with staff buzzing from flower to flower spreading their pollen, helping those in need flourish. From the moment I arrived I felt welcomed and cared for, I hope to be able to do the same for others one day, with my family by my side."
COSTI’s annual Refugees & Human Rights Child & Youth Poetry Contest provides all young women and men, no matter where they were born, with an opportunity to express their feelings through the written word. School-age children across Ontario and current and former COSTI clients, are encouraged to participate.
Adham Al Azhari is the 1st Prize Winner of COSTI’s 2018 Refugees & Human Rights Child & Youth Poetry Contest. Adham was born in Syria and arrived in Canada in 2015 through the Private Sponsorship of Refugees program. In his poem Jasmine Scented Memories, Adham reflects on his experience as a refugee fleeing war and loss.
“I was living in Homs, a Syrian city, when a missile struck our house and killed my mom. I got burned – my hair, brows and eyelashes were all gone – and 39 pieces of metal got stuck in my body. My dad was injured also. We were taken to different hospitals and reunited afterwards.
After the missile attack I moved to Damascus, Syria’s capital, with my dad and brother. We lived there for about two years and then Jordan. We lived in Jordan for almost four years and lost my dad there to a heart attack. My brother and I had to work to survive and didn’t have the chance to keep studying. Then, suddenly, we received a call from the Office for Refugees of the Archdiocese of Toronto (ORAT) letting us know that we could go to Canada through the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program.
My brother and I arrived in Canada approximately three years ago. I didn’t speak a word of English and struggled a lot because I was not able to communicate, I couldn’t even ask for a glass of water. I was also feeling very scared because we didn’t know our sponsors, but thank God they turned out to be angels. They helped us with everything: renting a house, buying furniture, finding a job for my brother, putting me in school, financially, and emotionally. I was young when the war started in Syria and lacked affection. My sponsors gave me that affection. And now that we’re both established, they continue to support us. They are really nice people and treat us as if we were their own sons. They’re like my family.I started taking English classes as soon as I arrived in Toronto and attended the City Adult Learning Centre where I won a scholarship to study at Keystone International Schools. I just finished high school and I am going to George Brown College to pursue a Bachelor of Technology in Construction Management. My brother is currently working as a plumber and is looking forward to getting his Certificate of Apprenticeship.”
Adham learned about COSTI’s Refugees & Human Rights Child & Youth Poetry Contest through his teachers at Keystone International Schools. He wrote the poem to fully express his feelings and share what he experienced.
“Speaking about what I have been through is very complex and people don’t always get what I’m trying to convey, so I decided to write about it to make people understand. The title of my poem is Jasmine Scented Memories because my mom’s name was Jasmine, and also because I love jasmine and its smell brings back so many memories…
My experience as a refugee has taught me that life without kind and grateful people is nothing. I don’t want to judge everyone but most people, when they try to help others, they’re also expecting to get something in return. But here in Canada it is different. I have seen people helping others selflessly. Look at me, I am here, I am safe, I am happy, and I am building my future! Canada gives opportunity to so many people. Here you have the chance to do whatever you want to do, and to become whoever you want to be.”
Jasmine Scented Memories
I look up into the blue sky
A familiar face says hi
I remember my mom’s face
I long for her warm embrace
Jasmine scented hugs
Hot chocolate mugs
The warmth fades
And now comes the razor blades
Dark grey skies
Blood teared eyes
Buildings on fire
Lives hanging on a wire
Tomorrow is our only hope
Resilience is the only way to cope
There is never enough time to heal
Struggling every day for a single meal
I’ve resisted but for what reason
I ask myself every passing season
I’m all alone and lost
I’ve survived only to be tossed
Into a political game for people to gain
I’m tired of this never ending chain
Bombs are dropping stormily
My only wish is to live normally
The Syrian Newcomer Professionals Internship Program was established in September 2016 as a result of a donation received from La Fondation Emmanuelle Gattuso. The goal of the program was to place 15 Syrian newcomer professionals in paid internships for 10 weeks, in their related field or profession, in order to help them gain valuable Canadian work experience. COSTI was successful in placing 20 individuals in internships.
The support received from La Fondation Emmanuelle Gattuso allowed COSTI to provide financial incentives to employers. Emmanuelle Gattuso realized that there were gaps that needed to be filled and understood the need for newcomers to gain Canadian work experience: "There was a groundswell of support to bring Syrian refugees to Canada, but less focus or support on how they might make this their home. I felt that providing an incentive to potential employers would be the best way to support their efforts to obtain work experience, make contact and hopefully be able to support themselves and their families as they start their lives in Canada."
Workshops specifically designed for internationally trained professionals were delivered throughout the program and included information on: guidance on employment trends, how to prepare cover letters and résumés, networking, portfolio building, and interview planning and preparation within the Canadian context.
Mahmoud Bakkar is an example of how La Fondation Emmanuelle Gattuso and the Syrian Newcomer Professionals Program has made a difference for him and his family.
"Before I started the workshop at COSTI’s Mississauga Employment Services, I thought that as a Systems Analyst, I didn’t need anyone to help me write my résumé, prepare for an interview, or actually find employment, I was wrong. While we are professionals in our field and may have the technical and hard skills to work in Canada, we lack the most important element to finding employment – soft skills. I can literally say that the workshops saved a year for me in my job search, I learned how to conduct myself in interviews, dress accordingly and reinforce key qualities. Can you believe I had four job interviews after I completed the workshops and was hired by Ryerson University on contract as a Web Communications Specialist? I’m not a superhero, I’m just a person like many newcomers, but I followed all the instructions and suggestions made at the workshops, prepared myself and searched for the right opportunities."
Caterina Bellissimo (right) with Rosalie Ricupati, Clinical Counsellor
Family and Mental Health Services
Caterina Bellissimo suffered from severe anxiety and lack of sleep for many years. Wanting to help, her sister suggested that Caterina attend the meditation group led by COSTI’s Clinical Counsellor, Rosalie Ricupati. The meditation group and one-on-one counselling sessions with Rosalie have forever changed Caterina.
Rosalie is very proud and happy for Caterina. "Learn something new, practice it and then teach what you’ve learned, it’s the cycle of life, pay it forward. Watching Caterina’s dedication and transformation has been incredible, the teacher can teach, but the student needs to be present."
"Before meeting Rosalie, I was a very angry person and didn’t trust anyone. I was involved in abusive relationships and was destined to repeat the abusive pattern I experienced as a young child. Counselling helped me understand and recognize the signs of abuse and gave me tools to cope and remove myself from negative situations. It also helped me understand my parents and the struggle faced by immigrants in a new country. I realized that sometimes adults outwardly express their own anxiety without realizing the consequences of their actions on their own children.
"COSTI was life changing for me. Before meeting Rosalie, I came from a place of darkness, emotionally and physically drained from my experiences and life’s challenges. But today, I can honestly say that I am proud of myself and my accomplishments, and I owe my new outlook on life to Rosalie and her counselling advice. I have never connected with anyone like I have with Rosalie. It’s an unbelievable transformation that happens when you have someone who validates your feelings and supports you with no judgement. A year and a half later, I no longer need sleeping pills. I am positive, healthy and strong.
Eager to share my experiences and help others, Rosalie was happy to act as a teacher and instruct me on how to conduct workshops on mindfulness in my workplace. I can’t believe that I will be running workshops in 2018! Paying it forward is so important to me, if what I do helps just one person, then I have accomplished something of value in my life."
Caterina is very hopeful for the future, I’m a better person now, I’m strong and courageous. I love myself now, live life mindfully and excited about what life has to offer. I don’t know where I would be without Rosalie, she saved my life!"
Oksana Crygorenko arrived in Canada a few years ago from the Ukraine. A registered nurse by profession, she knew that since nursing was an accredited profession, she would likely be unable to practice in Ontario. Unsure of her career goals and options and knowing that her English reading and writing skills needed to improve, she wasn’t confident that she would be able to find employment, particularly since she did not have any work experience in Canada. Her first step towards employment started with enrolling in LINC classes followed by COSTI’s Enhanced Language Training Program for health care professionals.
"In a short time I was able to better understand the Canadian labour market, practice my interview skills and learn medical terminology used in Canada. Sara Guo, the program’s Job Developer found a volunteer placement for me at a medical centre, where I was able to apply different skills. While I learned a lot, the best part personally, was meeting other immigrant professionals, most of whom are now my friends. And professionally? Getting hired by Dr. Micheal Hanna! He appreciates and respects me and values my opinion. I will always be grateful to him for giving me my first job."
An immigrant himself, Dr. Micheal Hanna, understands how challenging it is to find employment in a career you have trained for and love. "When I first arrived from Egypt with my wife who is also a professional, we were determined to continue practicing in our professions. Having achieved our goals and knowing through my own experience, how difficult it is to find employment without Canadian experience, I wanted to give other immigrant professionals an opportunity.
My patients at the Dufferin Major Medical Clinic come from all over the world and speak many languages. I want to provide the best treatment possible, so I need to be able to communicate with them and understand the cultural differences, particularly when it comes to medical care. Working with, and hiring immigrant professionals allows me to help my patients and also help new immigrants to Canada – a win-win situation."
For Oxsana, completing the ELT program and working at the clinic is only the beginning. She has found a new confidence and wants to further her education and continue improving her English.
Funded by the Calabrian Benevolent Association of Ontario, the CBAO Seniors Day Program has successfully evolved from a traditional care-based support program into an education-based care support program that focuses on learning and enhancing the short-term memory of seniors. The emphasis on learning, not only helps seniors to improve the meaningfulness and value of their activities, it enables them to activate and exercise their short-term memory more frequently.
Antonina Di Lisi was born in Sicily in 1931 and arrived in Canada by ship in 1951. As a young woman, she settled in Winnipeg, Manitoba and lived with her aunt and uncle who immigrated to Canada a few years earlier. Antonina married, started her own family and moved to Toronto eight years later.
Having raised their family, Antonina and her husband were enjoying their grandchildren and family, as many seniors do. Her husband noticed that she was having some memory issues, such as forgetting where she had put things, or whether she had added salt to food or not.
Antonina’s husband, Peter, passed away in October 2016. She moved in with her daughter Josie Badali and started attending COSTI’s CBAO Seniors Day Program over two years ago.
“We had a caregiver at home right after my mom moved in with me, but she didn’t like that situation. She was very bored. The caregiver didn’t drive so they didn’t do very much. She would sit at home all day and wasn’t stimulated enough. It was just not working for her. Now she goes to the Centre four to five times a week, from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. We have breakfast together every morning, she gets ready and then I drop her off on my way to work.
I chose this program because she needed social stimulation and the CBAO Seniors Day Program offers lots of activities for seniors: baking, cooking, crafting, games, exercises and live music. It’s also because of the Italian component. She’s very fluent in English and I think it is good for her to speak English because it keeps her mind going, but keeping the Italian is important too,” comments Josie.
“I am very happy and I have friends!,” says Antonina with a big smile on her face. “One of the many benefits of the program is that it has given my mother a purpose, something to look forward to,” Josie explains.
“Every morning, she gets up, takes a shower, and does her hair. She has somewhere to go and looks forward to socializing. She’s much happier and calmer. It’s been very beneficial for her and she enjoys it very much. She is always mingling and talking with the other ladies and gentlemen. Her favourite activities are cooking, baking, dancing and exercising. She is very healthy and fit and I think she enjoys moving around more and having some extra physical activity. The live music concerts are also among her favourite things and mine too! I try to attend every time program staff invite us because it is so much fun and I always find my mom dancing with her friends.
This program has been a Godsend for us. It is such a blessing. My mom enjoys it very much and the staff are kind and gentle. When my mom comes here, as soon as she walks through the door, everyone is so positive and inviting. It is truly invaluable!”
Martha Ebanks’ relationship with COSTI started over nineteen years ago when she attended her first workshop on résumé writing. She returned as an older adult, looking to secure permanent employment.
"After I upgraded my résumé, I was immediately hired by Walmart Canada as an Assistant Store Manager and worked there for eight years before I went on to work at Shoppers Drug Mart for seven years. Wanting to improve my opportunities, I went back to school and found part-time employment as a Medical Office Assistant. Parents sometimes struggle to be able to support their children and provide them with opportunities that were not always made available to them growing up. As a single mother on a part-time salary, I quickly realized that the opportunities available to my children would be limited. That’s when I came back to COSTI, where I met with Employment Consultant Terri Foley who encouraged me to update my résumé and attend career workshops.
"Every morning, from 9:00 am to 1:00 pm, I would send out résumés and Terri would help me prepare for my interviews. Within two weeks I received four job offers, one of them a full-time position with Clera Windows and Doors. Although the position at Clera was not in the medical field, Terri advised me that the office experience in a well-established company would help build on my previous experience. I couldn’t have made a better choice, I would have still been working part-time if I hadn’t made the decision to get help and advice from COSTI Employment Services for a second time!
"I was very motivated to improve my life and the lives of my children. It takes commitment, hard work and patience to move forward with your career goals…it also takes commitment from an organization like COSTI and Employment Consultants like Terri, who believe in you and share in your dreams of achieving success in your life."
Khatoon arrived in Canada as a government-sponsored refugee in December 2017. She is 25 years old and a survivor of the Sinjar massacre, a genocide and abduction of thousands of people by The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Daesh) that took place in Sinjar on August 2014.
Before arriving in Canada, Khatoon lived with her parents and eight brothers in a small village in northern Iraq. Her family owned a small piece of land where they grew all types of vegetables and raised goats. She never went to school.
“On August 3, 2014 three Daesh vehicles with armed men arrived at our village. There were about six men in each car. By 6:00 pm, ten more cars arrived. The men carried guns and ammunition belts around their waists.
They rounded us up and divided us in groups of men, women and children. My father and brothers were taken to Ba'aj. They put the women and children in cars and brought us to a two-story prison in Tal Afar. It was very dirty and filled with so many people that you could not even walk. I saw sick and dying children.
They kept us in Tal Afar for three days and then took us to the Prison of Badush, a prison for women and girls. We were there for fifteen days and then I was taken to Mosul – Daesh headquarters in Iraq. After four days they took me to some sort of theatre located in Raqqa where they were selling women as slaves.
I was sold to one of Daesh’s religious leaders. He kept me as his servant for ten months. Then he sold me to a soldier who later sold me to another Daesh leader. They treated me as their wife and servant. In total, I was sold three times and experienced all types of violence. I was constantly beaten, sexually abused and isolated in a tiny room with no water, food or sunlight for days. They killed people in front of me and forced me to learn The Quran.
In August 2016, other prisoners and I decided to escape. We were in Aleppo and convinced a taxi driver to take us to Kobane. It took two days and two nights to get there, where I reunited with my mother and three brothers. I arrived in Canada as a government-sponsored refugee in December 2017. One of my brothers currently lives in Toronto with me, two remain with my mother in Kurdistan territory and as of today, I still don’t know where my father and five brothers are.”
Khatoon began accessing COSTI’s Mental Health Services and attending English classes in February 2018. Her counselling sessions provided her with the support she needed to start her new life in Canada and to work through the trauma and violence she experienced.
She currently attends English classes offered through COSTI three times a week and meets with her Clinical Counsellor once a week. Khatoon no longer feels isolated and is now more confident and comfortable in connecting with others. She travels the city on her own using public transit and smiles whenever she gets the chance to engage in a conversation and practice her English.
“It is very difficult to forget what has happened to me, but the counselling sessions at COSTI have been very helpful. My counsellor has taught me a breathing technique that I now use every time I start feeling anxious and sad. I also practice art therapy. I was having nightmares and flashbacks about the face of a Daesh man. They taught me to draw the face on a sheet of paper, rip it apart into little pieces, and throw them away.
I am feeling much better and I really enjoy learning English. I feel safe in Canada and going to classes makes me happy! I also feel stronger and have the confidence to go outside and engage with others. This past summer I even went to Queens Park to take part in the fourth anniversary commemoration of the Sinjar massacre.
netWORKS, a program funded by United Way of Toronto & York Region, helps youth like Shayan Mubarak build professional networks to support their job search and find employment in their dream job.
Shayan didn't come to Canada expecting to be handed a job. "I had in the back of my mind that it's a really difficult job market here," he says. But starting his career in Canada turned out to be even harder than expected. "I started applying for jobs, putting out resumes and always getting that same email saying, 'You have potential, but unfortunately...’"
With a degree in economics from a respected university in Pakistan, he’d hoped he'd have a shot at jobs in his chosen field. But no one here had heard of his school, and he had no Canadian work experience. And, like many newcomers, Shayan’s professional networks in his new home were thin. He had fled Pakistan because, as a member of an often-persecuted faith, he feared for his safety. However, most of his family had stayed behind. In his early 20s, Shayan was on his own in a new country.
As the rejections mounted, so did Shayan’s despair. "As time passed, I started feeling depressed that there weren't many opportunities," he says. But then he heard about COSTI Immigrant Services, a United Way agency that provides employment, educational and settlement supports to a variety of immigrant communities, including newcomers like Shayan. "It was my only hope," he says.
COSTI’s youth mentoring coach, Tejal Solanki told him that in order to land a job in his field, he needed to start making connections. She recommended United Way’s netWORKS program, which would help him build a better résumé, do practice interviews and, most importantly, meet contacts at job fairs and networking events. Shayan threw himself into the workshops and beefed up his job-hunting skills. He made friends, met potential employers and—to his delight—landed a position in his field just two months after his first meeting at COSTI.
Instead of getting up late and reading rejection emails, Shayan now spends his days working as a contact centre service representative, helping bank clients sort out credit issues. He's certain that netWORKS made the difference in his job search, and is grateful for the help he got from agency staff.
Shayan hopes that that after a couple of years in his current job, he’d like to apply for a financial analyst position. Then he’ll shoot for his dream job: an economist at the Bank of Canada. And he’ll use his new connections to help make that dream a reality. "What I learned from this experience is that any connection can be helpful, and with the right contacts, you’ll find opportunities."
A strong network is key to building a career in Canada, as Shayan discovered during his job hunt. Luckily, United Way donors like you were there to help.
Find about more about the United Way and Shayan's experience here.
Police Constable Ahsan Ulfat arrived in Canada in December 1998. He fled from Afghanistan with his mother and two brothers using a Red Cross passport. His father, an Afghan politician, was murdered ten years earlier. Ahsan and his family’s lives were also at risk. They wanted to come to Canada because they had family here and they knew that it was a safe and multicultural country.
Ahsan and his family spent their first ten days in Canada at COSTI’s Ralph Chiodo Family Immigrant Reception Centre Services located in downtown Toronto. He is one of the countless newcomers and refugees that COSTI has helped throughout the last 65 years. Ahsan currently works as a Police Officer for Toronto Police Service, 14 Division.
"Back home police officers are known to commit most of the crimes, so you avoid them at all costs. We came to Canada through Pakistan. When we crossed the border from Afghanistan, the police officers took every cent we had. We literally arrived with nothing, only with some old pots and pans in a cardboard box and some clothes. When we arrived, right on the baggage carousel at the airport, the box opened up and the pots and pans spilled all over the place. A police officer was there and asked us if the pots and pans belonged to us. We said ‘yes’ and he told us to wait for a second. He walked away and came back with some tape, he taped the box up and said ‘have a good day.’ That day, I knew that I wanted to become a police officer.
"COSTI was my home when I first came Canada. Part of my childhood is in that building downtown. They gave us our first winter coats and boots, provided us with a place to sleep and gave us three meals every day so we didn’t have to worry about when our next meal was going to be. Staff walked us to Service Ontario and helped us get our health card and our social insurance card, so we could start working and go to the doctor if needed.
"Can you imagine arriving to Canada and not having any of that? What do you do after you’ve landed at Terminal 3? You need someone that says ‘Welcome to Canada!’ and helps you get set up. That’s exactly what COSTI does. They are your first impression of what a Canadian is. They treat you like a human being.
What I appreciate the most about my time at COSTI, is that there was always someone to talk to and practice my English with. Staff are never too busy for you. That’s how I remember Thomas, one of the Counsellors at the Ralph Chiodo Family Immigrant Reception Centre. He would always talk to you for a couple of minutes, ask you about your day, and make you feel good. That was unbelievable to me. Forget about the food and the clothes and the bed! Only that human aspect of COSTI makes it invaluable. I will never forget my experience, it has shaped who I am and what I do today."
Ahsan has been working as a Police Officer for over ten years. He enjoys visiting COSTI whenever he has chance and brings coffee and Timbits to welcome the refugees and newcomers that are staying at the Ralph Chiodo Family Immigrant Reception Centre. "I want them to know that they we are here to serve them and that they can reach out to me and to any police officer for help at any time," says Ahsan.