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Sylvia Gawad shares her twists and turns through Canada’s immigration system

Sylvia Gawad spent 14 years navigating the immigration system in Canada. During that time, she has endured difficulties that would see the average person give up. 

However, Gawad took her experience and used it as fuel to create real change for others.  

Originally from Egypt, Gawad’s journey to Canada started because of family expectations and traditions. 

“My parents always focused on education, that was one of their unwavering things. The kids had to have good education,” she says. “My dad is a university professor and my mom is a principal, so it was always very strong on the education front. 

“We always knew our education had to be the best.” 

A lot of research and decisions led to the decision to come to Canada. 

“We were looking at places and Canada was always one of the places that really had a good, strong education system and we were able to come here,” Gawad says. 

At first, her journey started out west, but Gawad knew very quickly Nova Scotia would be more of a fit for her. 

“My sister came first. She went to the University of Alberta and I was supposed to go there,” she says. “I ended up going there for about a week or so. Absolutely knowing it was not the place for me. Alberta was not for me.” 

She had a back-up plan already and quickly headed east. 

“I already had my acceptance to St. Mary’s University, so at that point I knew Nova Scotia was the place for me,” she says. “I made my way from Alberta to Nova Scotia.” 

Pursuing a science degree at SMU was just the start. She had plans of continuing her education at Dalhousie. However, life stopped in its tracks for Gawad and her family. 

Her family had moved to Libya, but had not yet become naturalized citizens when civil war errupted during what came to be called the Arab Spring

“During the second year of university, the war launched in Libya,” she says. “Your parents have employment, they’re comfortable, and overnight everything is just gone. Banks shut down, work was lost, our house is taken over, it’s all gone. It all came to a stop.” 

Gawad found herself in a position she never expected. Halfway across the world from her support system, worried, and all of a sudden on her own. 

“I had to make some difficult decisions at that point as an international student,” she says. “There is really no option for you to continue unless you are paying those international fees, there are no programs to help you and those fees are exorbitant.” 

Study permits come with strict rules about working. International students on a study visa are only allowed to work 20 hours a week off campus, but they can work unlimited hours on campus. 

That put Gawad in a tight spot, especially since her tuition fees were much higher. 

“Usually, it’s minimum wage jobs. That means the maximum you can make is about $270 to $300 a week, unless you’re also taking on an on-campus job, so that is limiting to individuals, especially with no other supports,” she says. 

Not one to shy away from hard work, Gawad found a way to persevere. She says the connections and networks she had started to build were lifesavers. 

“Luckily for me, I was working on campus and I was connected to the president at the time, Dr. Colin Dodds, and I talked to him about trying to find ways to overcome that my parents had lost their income and could no longer pay. I was thinking of packing my bags and trying to figure it out somewhere else, but the university came together, the admissions came together, and the president and registrar’s office put me on a payment plan, opened up opportunities for scholarships, grants, to try to defer some of the costs. They even put me on payment plan after graduation,” Gawad says. “That’s not the norm.” 

However, she still had to make very high payments every month. She still had to put in serious work. 

“During undergrad, I had six jobs,” she says. “Four of them were on campus and two of them were off campus. All of my holidays, I was working. I used to work at a clothing store from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. From 7 p.m. to midnight I used to work at the movies.  

“On all the Christmas breaks, all the New Year’s, any break there is you’re allowed to work as long as you want. It’s only during school that you aren’t allowed to work more than 20 hours off campus. I found any job that would take me and just kept working just to pay off these very very high fees,” she says. 

Once one hurdle was crossed, Gawad then moved on to her post graduation three-year work permit, something every international student is entitled to. 

“After you graduate, you get a three-year post graduation work permit, which allows you to work for any employer for three years.” 

Her experience included trying to renew a passport in a country battling civil unrest, a complete lack of education and knowledge in the places she did work, and a litany of fumbles and brick walls applying for her permanent residency (PR). 

“There are three years that you get as a post grad work permit. The first year is a wash, because you need to have one-year work experience, so you can’t do anything for one year while you’re getting that work experience. Let’s say it takes you two to three months to find a job, so that’s a year and three months you’re looking at getting your experience,” Gawad says. “So, you have a year and a half to get the paperwork in to get your permanent residency. 

“The process to get your PR, before COVID, was about six to eight months. The process for a provincial nomination was another four to six months. So, you’re basically at the end of the wire no matter what,” she says. “You are pushing and pushing and pushing.” 

Unfortunately, Gawad’s first attempt at obtaining her permanent residency was denied, with the reasoning she didn’t provide enough proof of employment. 

“I provided a letter of employment, I provided a pay stub, I provided my training, a letter of recommendation from my manager, and with all of that, I had not provided enough documentation to prove I had done the work I said I did,” she says. “I knew I only had eight months left before I had an expired work permit. I knew I had to act fast. Eight months is not a lot of time when it comes to these systems and they take forever.  

“I’m connected to Andy Fillmore and to Mike Savage, and I’m connected to the minister of immigration. What used to take four months, I got it in a day by pushing networks. So, this is the power of networks.” 

She quickly reapplied. 

“Right away, I submitted a new PR application with the exact same application, but I added more documents on how I met the qualification. I got more letters of recommendation from my colleagues, from members of the public, and I got a letter from Andy Fillmore and Mike Savage and put that in the application. 

“Six months later, three weeks before my work term was set to expire, I was invited to apply for my PR and it was just right on the line.” 

Gawad became a Canadian Citizen at the end of 2021. Fourteen years after first coming to the country. It’s this experience that shaped her career helping others navigate the system. 

To read more about Sylvia Gawad’s experience with Canadian immigration, please check out the rest of her story by visiting and clicking on Stories. Then look under the Online Exclusive tab. 

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