By Albert Nsabiyumva

“We call them refugees, but they’re just people, like you and me”, and … “We all stand on the shoulders of good people who didn’t look away when we were in need”.[1] –George Clooney, Oscar-winning actor

Heart-rending pictures of a child’s lifeless body washed ashore on a Turkish beach sparked horror on Wednesday, September 2, 2015, as the cost of Europe’s burgeoning refugee crisis hit home[2]. Those images of the 3-year-old drowned toddler, Aylan Kurdi, became the tragic symbol of the Syrian refugee crisis.[3] They appeal to every person living on this planet earth to ask the question about our individual and collective responsibility in relation to this tragedy.

Refugees in the world

According to the UNHCR[4], 65.3 million people were displaced as of the end of 2015: This is the first time that the threshold of 60 million has been crossed, and these numbers mean that 1 in every 113 people globally is now either an asylum-seeker, internally displaced or a refugee. [5] There is a big difference between a refugee and an immigrant even though both are considered to be immigrants after a while. An immigrant is a person who chooses to move to another country, and settle permanently in that country. A refugee is a person who is forced to flee from persecution and who is located outside of their home country.[6]

When we talk about refugees and immigrants, it is important to understand the many different terms used to describe refugees and immigrants:[7]

  • Government-assisted refugee (GAR)
  • Privately sponsored refugee (PSR)
  • Convention refugee
  • Resettled refugee
  • Protected person
  • Asylum-seeker
  • Refugee claimant
  • Internally displaced person
  • Stateless person

You may also hear about “political refugee” and “economic refugee;” these terms have no meaning in law, and can be confusing as they incorrectly suggest that there are different categories of refugees. Each single term has a specific meaning, and getting to know them better can help in understanding the long path that refugees have to take.

Refugee claimants in Canada

Each year, Canada provides asylum to more than 10,000 persecuted persons and welcomes another 12,000 refugees from abroad[8]. In 2011, Canada expanded its refugee resettlement programs by 20% over three years. The country has a long history of welcoming refugees. In 1796, the first refugees were 3,000 Black Loyalists, among them freemen and slaves, who fled the oppression of the American Revolution and came to Canada.

A look at the countries of origin for refugee claimants in Canada from 2005 to 2014 shows that they come from around the world.[9]


Understanding refugees’ issues to better help them

While employment would be the ultimate goal to get a refugee resettled, there are five stages that refugees go through, and getting a better understanding of each stage may bring effectiveness to the kind of help career practitioners provide.

  1. Denial and isolation: The refugee tries to deny the reality of his/her situation.
  2. Anger: The refugee’s anger may be aimed at inanimate objects, complete strangers, friends or family.
  3. Bargaining: Secretly, refugees may make a deal with God or a higher power in an attempt to postpone the inevitable. This is a line of defence to protect them from their painful reality.
  4. Depression:
    •Depression (Type 1) occurs when sadness and regret predominate in the mind of the refugee.
    • Depression (Type 2) is subtle and, in a sense, perhaps more private. It is a quiet preparation to separate and to bid goodbye to the lost life.
  5. Acceptance: Reaching this stage of mourning is a gift not afforded to everyone.

People who are grieving do not necessarily go through the stages in the same order or experience all of them.

In my years of work as an employment counsellor, I have faced cases that require an understanding of the real reason hidden behind a refugee’s job search. M.H., a woman from Iraq in her 60s who had just spent a year in Canada, came to see me for help in finding a job. She spoke neither English nor French, and our communication took place through a translator. Asking her about the kind of work she was able to do and wanted to have, her answer was “Any.” It was then that I began to ask a series of motivation-related questions which she answered without flinching. When I asked about her husband and how he was doing, the woman burst into tears.

Through her answers, I realized that she was looking for work in order to get out of the house because her husband, a former mechanic technician in their country of origin, was the reason behind her employment research. I asked M.H. to call her husband to come and meet with me. The husband appeared within 10 minutes, and to my surprise, he spoke English easily and fluently. He wanted to find a job opportunity, and he was ready for it. I then offered him a job option that was available and he did not hesitate to seize it. The next day, he started his first job in Canada. When I followed up, a week later, not only was the couple happy with the husband’s employment, but also the woman was no longer looking to work. I had identified the problem: M.H. was in depression while the husband was in denial, isolation and anger.

Practical ways to effectively help refugees

Here are some practical actions that local agencies, groups and even individuals in your community can take to support refugees :

a) Volunteer your specific skill, for example, your technology skills or coaching a sports team.
b) Teach them language, start an entrepreneurial venture with them, socialize.
c) Help refugees to integrate into a new culture: There are feelings of isolation that refugees can experience when they are relocated to a new country and then try to get over their trauma and restart their lives.
d) Encourage your university to offer refugee scholarships: For refugee students, losing the chance to pursue their studies is devastating.
e) Employ refugees: Note however that in some cases refugees are not permitted to work.
f) Seek/offer opportunities for refugees to volunteer: In cases where refugees can’t work legally, volunteering can lend the days more purpose.
g) Hold/support awareness and fundraising events for refugees.

Learn more about working with refugees at my session at the Cannexus17 National Career Development Conference on January 23.


Albert Nsabiyumva, Eng., MBA, is a former refugee from Burundi. He has been in Canada since 2008, and has been involved with community organizations since 2009. His integration into the Canadian workplace has not been easy: Arriving in the middle of the 2008 economic recession, when the Windsor, ON automotive companies were laying off their employees, he decided to set aside his engineering degree, and use his transferable skills to make his way in the new environment. His jobs ranged from a van driver to employment within a bilingual call centre. He holds an MBA from Laval University, and now helps others in teaching, settlement and employment. Follow him on Twitter at @nsabalbe.


[1] (24/04/2016). Refugees ‘are people, just like you and me’, George Clooney says. URL:

[2] Channel NewsAsia. AFP/de. (03 Sep 2015). Drowned toddler sparks fresh horror over Europe migrant crisis. URL:

[3] OnairPK. Al Jazeera And Agencies. (September 3, 2015). Heart-rending photos of toddler’s lifeless body washed ashore on Turkish beach spark horror and debate on refugees. URL:

[4] UNHCR: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

[5] UNHCR. (20 June 2016). With 1 human in every 113 affected, forced displacement hits record high. URL:

[6] Canadian Council for Refugees. Refugees and Immigrants: A glossary. URL:

[7] Canadian Council for Refugees. Talking About Refugees and Immigrants: A Glossary Of Terms. URL:

[8] Government of Canada. Canada: A History of Refuge. URL:

[9] Government of Canada. CIC Facts and Figures 2014. URL: