Toronto, Canada

COSTI Syrian Refugee Professional Internship Program


December 21, 2017

Paid internships for refugees, combined with orientation and employment services, build confidence and provide the “Canadian work experience” that many employers require

Mahmoud Bakkar, a participant of the COSTI Syrian Refugee Professional Internship Program

Over 25,000 refugees began their journey from Syria to Canada in 2015. According to Mario Calla, Executive Director of COSTI Immigrant Services in Toronto, “escaping from suffering and persecution is just the first step in a long journey for refugees. When they arrive here in their new country, they encounter a new series of challenges.” Our goal, he says, is to “help refugee families get the best start for their new life in Canada.”

COSTI, along with a network of partners, is on the front line of refugee reception and settlement. They are the lead agency helping Government Sponsored Refugees (GSRs) in the Toronto region. Like many service providers, COSTI finds working with refugees both a rewarding and challenging experience. What works best, according to Julie Darboh, COSTI’s Director of Employment Services, is a targeted and focused approach: ”Clients such as the Syrian newcomers require more hand-holding to assist them in gaining their confidence and self-worth. Such a specialized service is better able to prepare program participants, identify niche markets and opportunities for the unique skills and abilities of a focused and marginalized client groups.”

And like all newcomers, the faster refugees find employment, the quicker they will engage and become self-sufficient members of the community.

Vision, partnership and generosity

Many Syrians arrive with extensive training and skills only to face numerous challenges accessing the employment, starting with a lack of Canadian workplace experience. In 2016, La Fondation Emmanuelle Gattuso approached COSTI with a niche opportunity. The Foundation wanted to provide funding to support paid internships for at least 15 professional Syrian Refugees. The idea was to give the Syrian newcomers a leg up in their search for employment through orientation and employment services from COSTI matched with paid workplace internships that would provide the “Canadian experience” that many employers require.  In short order, the COSTI Syrian Refugee Professional Internship Program was born.

The support received from La Fondation Emmanuelle Gattuso serves as an example of how philanthropic individuals and corporations make a difference in the lives of newcomers, by helping shape their future and accelerating their engagement in Canada, and in the process, contributing to the economy and their community. – 2016/2017  COSTI Annual Report

Although COSTI already had a large client pool of almost 2200 Syrians to work with, they reached out to Toronto’s Armenian community to offer support to its privately sponsored refugees.  Partnership and collaboration have characterized COSTI’s approach since its earliest days with Italian immigrants to Canada in the 1950s.

It’s still a winning formula.

How it works

COSTI screened refugee candidates for their English skills and professional backgrounds, eventually accepting twenty-seven into the refugee professional internship program. The candidates represented a wide range of professional backgrounds, including architects, engineers, accountants, social workers, IT and business specialists, software developers, and more. COSTI’s employment programs for internationally trained Individuals formed the backbone of the initial orientation and program development.

A two week compressed workshop provided information about adapting to workplace culture and preparing a professional portfolio. COSTI specialists worked with each client to guide them through the job application and interview process. That included tailoring each curriculum vitae (CV) to the Canadian context, using an anonymous CV format designed to reduce the risk of overt, or ‘unconscious’ discrimination that a growing body of research has highlighted as a barrier to immigrant employment.

COSTI also provided real-world insight and network. The refugee candidates had access to local guest speakers to learn exactly what employers were looking for. Their credentials were assessed by World Education Services (WES), under a pilot Alternative Credential Assessment for Syrian Refugees project.

According to Mahmoud Bakkar, a program participant who was an IT professional in Damascus, “COSTI training was really unique. If focused on soft skills. It hit on workplace communications, culture and work ethics specific to a Canadian context. The internship itself exposed me to the Canadian workplace culture, and allowed me to sharpen my soft skills, work with professionals. It increased my self-confidence and awareness. And that’s what I truly gained. That was the key for me to land the next job.”

As the Syrian professionals were taking their crash course in Canadian employment, COSTI was reaching out to its extensive employer network. Like the many Canadians who stepped forward during the Syrian refugee crisis, the response from Toronto area employers has been catalytic. COSTI found employers who were willing to host workers for the full 10 week internships. Many were willing to top up their interns’ wages in recognition of the applicant’s skills and experience.

Bakkar notes the benefits of a paid internship: “Having internships paid is a win-win situation. It encourages the employer to hire newcomers and immigrants, and helps the employee to practice in the new work culture and gain the required soft skills while earning an income. The first job that a newcomer or an immigrant gets is like the foundation stone for their immigration journey to Canada — getting this right would make the whole journey smooth.”

Employer efforts were transformative

Pinpoint GPS Solutions, a fleet management business that has partnered with COSTI for over 20 years, was quick to respond to COSTI’s new internship program. COSTI had no trouble providing three applicants for a general accounting position they needed to support a challenging systems implementation involving an integrated financial and accounting module. Among them, Samer Arafeh stood out for his extensive international experience but was also over-qualified for the job, with poor English skills.  That was a potential problem, as the company’shiring manager and small business owner, Vince Arone, knows well: “It’s important to get the best fit possible for each job.”  They took a chance anyways, offering Arafeh a 3 month internship.  “Even though this was not our original hiring plan,” Arone comments, “Samer’s professionalism and willingness to learn helped convince us.”

It turned out to be a win-win proposition for both parties. Arone: “I learned that our team member from Syria just needed a “first chance,” an opportunity to be in a Canadian office to see how we do business, understand the processes, the protocol, speaking to fellow employees, answering emails and phone calls from customers and suppliers. Not to mention the slang and local business terms”

On his side, the highly qualified Arafeh learned that he’d launched his career in Canada with a welcoming, multicultural team. He realized “how similar we are regardless of where we are born.”

The risk paid off. Today, Arafeh is fully employed and a valued team member at Pinpoint GPS Systems.


Out of the twenty-seven initial candidates that were selected, 20 completed internships and 18 went on to full time employment, the majority hired by the companies where they had interned (two started their own businesses). Another seven decided to go back to school,  one encouraged by his employer to seek upgrading. A job waits for him when he returns.

Darboh says that while employment is very important, refugees also have other issues to deal with. Culturally sensitive “wrap around services” encompassing case management, along with settlement, housing, health and employment services are equally important. COSTI’s holistic service model has worked well for the former refugees –and earned the agency international recognition.

COSTI is sharing the success of the paid internship project and its partnership with La Fondation Emmanuelle Gattuso in the hopes the success of the model will lead to more engagement from employers and better outcomes for the next cohort of refugees. As Canadians in cities across the country continue to receive and settle refugees, COSTI’s lesson is that a paid internship model should be part of the welcome.

Making it Work for You:

  • Be ready to be responsive. Mainstream multiservice refugee-serving organizations have dedicated funded programming. Being nimble to respond to small, but impactful, ideas and investments can build transformative solutions for clients.
  • Build on what you already do well. COSTI was able to leverage its own service experience and knowledge along with employer relationships to quickly run with a new idea.
  • Be holistic. Refugees come with many needs. Employment and becoming economically independent is important, but so too is supporting them in all areas where they need help.
  • Build on your success. COSTI's success with internships confirms the importance of them being paid. They provide that first Canadian work experience for a refugee. But they also indicate the value of their previous work and experience.