The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the need for increased staffing at long-term care facilities, and one Nova Scotia home has found hope in a place where hope is often in short supply.
Glen Haven Manor in the town of New Glasgow is part of a federal project, working in tandem with the United Nations and several NGOs, to recruit skilled workers from refugee camps in the Middle East and Africa.
Ottawa's Economic Mobility Pathways Pilot (EMPP) program was launched in 2018 with the goals of easing the skilled labour shortage in Canada while serving a humanitarian purpose.
Glen Haven has hired five people under the federal program. Khodor Ramlawi was the first, joining the home's staff in December 2020.
Although his wife, Maya, is Lebanese, he and their two daughters had no status and were classed as Palestinian refugees.
The family was living outside of a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, where Ramlawi also worked, when he was recruited.
Ramlawi said he was a registered nurse in Lebanon and a paramedic instructor who worked in emergency departments and operating theatres for 20 years.
"My friend told me, there's an NGO, her name is Talent Beyond [Boundaries] that can help you to apply for Canada," he said.
Talent Beyond Boundaries is a non-governmental organization working with the federal program to identify potential candidates in the Middle East. Another organization, RefugePoint, serves a similar function in East African countries.
Ramlawi said he had applied before to immigrate to Canada with no success but took the chance and applied to the organization.
Within two weeks officials asked for his curriculum vitae, he said, and two weeks later they told him he had an interview with Glen Haven Manor. He was successful.
"I told my wife, we are going to start our dream, and that's what happened," he said.
Ramlawi and Maya moved to Canada with their two young daughters.
Several newcomers have joined staff
For one resident of Glen Haven Manor, it's a move that has made her life easier.
Dorothy Royles is one of six people cared for by Ramlawi in his role as a continuing care assistant.
"From getting the breakfast trays until the last thing at night, he's on the ball," she said. "Giving and doing everything for everyone of us all day long. Couldn't have a better nurse if we tried."
Glen Haven CEO Lisa M. Smith said that in spite of the obstacles posed by the pandemic and quarantine restrictions, two more newcomers have joined the staff since Ramlawi's arrival. The pair hails from Kenya.
She said two more people are in quarantine and are expected to join the Glen Haven staff within a week and a half.
"Candidates under EMPP, they come with outstanding credentials and skills, and the passion that they bring to their role is just something that is immeasurable," Smith said.
It's a sentiment shared by Michelle Lowe, executive director of the Nursing Homes of Nova Scotia Association.
She said Glen Haven has been a "very innovative leader in this sector" as it relates to recruiting refugees.
"I have had the pleasure of meeting them; they are incredibly skilled," she said. "And they bring a skill set that we need here in Nova Scotia."
WATCH | Long-term care home recruits refugees to ease staff shortage:
Lowe said although long-term care is not the only sector looking outside the country to recruit staff, it is a reflection of the state of long-term care and health care in Nova Scotia.
She is hoping other Nova Scotia employers join the program to bring skilled people to the province.
'We're in a position where we need to be creative'
Smith said there simply aren't enough people who want the jobs in Canada.
"We're not attracting people from Pictou County, Nova Scotia or even Canada," she said.
"The role doesn't pay enough. There aren't enough of them and the workload is too heavy. So we're in a position where we need to be creative."
Smith said the humanitarian aspect is also important, as refugees are given the chance to build new lives and bring their families with them.
Ramlawi said Nova Scotia is a far safer and freer environment than the refugee camps in Lebanon.
"It is a bad, bad situation. There is a financial crisis there," he said. "There is no food for babies, there is no medication, there is no electricity, there are no fuels. And you are always thinking about your family."
Moving to Nova Scotia also means that he is working in a far lower position than those for which he is qualified.
He said having his credentials certified or starting university over from scratch is too expensive for a father on a low income who's providing for a family.
His wife, Maya, who has a bachelor's degree in education and French, said it's easier to get her credentials recognized in Canada than it is for him.
"I wish it was not ... because he already has his experience, but I don't know, maybe things will be better in the future, maybe for our kids," she said.
Ramlawi said he loves his job and regards the residents of Glen Haven as family. He's hoping that even if he has to make sacrifices by working in lower-paying positions, his children will have a brighter future.
"My daughters, they will have rights. Maybe they will be doctors, maybe they will be lawyers; they can work as lawyers," he mused.