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Gawad determined to help others through immigration process

Sylvia Gawad didn’t set out with the intention of making her life’s work helping others navigate the immigration system, but with her own experience as inspiration, that’s exactly what she’s doing through continuing education. 

“I want to be solution-driven,” Gawad says. She refuses to be let down by her own journey through the system and uses it as motivation to help others. 

“Right before I graduated, I realized the challenges the immigration system has and particularly some of the challenges immigrants have,” she says. “From feeling alone, feeling lost, and unable to navigate the system.” 

Gawad knew she wasn’t alone in her struggles. Many immigrants like her are halfway across the world from their support system. She vowed to use per experience for good. 

“That was one of my biggest challenges; navigating a system that changed with every government. Every time someone moves in government, the entire system shifts,” she says. “During that time (post-graduation), I was connected to a couple of organizations that helped newcomers and refugees, so I started to look into ways to empower them, to create opportunities.” 

It was those connections that led Gawad to start her own organization. Project 360 was born and she knew right from the start who she wanted to support. 

“It would take youth, the people I called the lost age. They were too old to go into high school, too young to gain any experience, any life skill, so they’re kind of lost,” Gawad says. “I started this organization, mostly aimed at women and youth and young girls, to help them navigate systems.” 

While every immigration story is unique, Gawad says community connection really stood out as a way she knew she could help. 

“What I found to be the biggest gap is they wanted to contribute, but couldn’t. So, we looked into ways for them to do so,” she says. 

She tells a story about something that started as a small idea, but quickly turned into something much bigger. 

“At one of our volunteer sessions at Parker Street Food Bank, they were throwing away all of this food because it was about to expired. They (volunteer participants) were like, ‘I wish I could take this and make it into jams or pickles or something,’ and I thought, ‘Oh! Let’s do that’.” 

That quick connection turned into Piece of the East

“The youth would come in the evening, do a little bit of language course, they would engage with members of the public, members of the community, then they would go to the kitchen, test recipes, try things, and they were coming to life,” Gawad says. “It blew up. 

“The face was three young men, but behind the scenes it was about 18 people from their refugee and newcomer community all working together to make it a reality.” 

Gawad says the overwhelming feeling of being connected and appreciated was so rewarding. 

“The first day at the farmers market they got connected with people who wanted to know them. wanted to know their story. They felt like they were cared for, they felt like they had a voice, and that’s what is missing,” she says. 

“These three young men and their families ended up meeting people in the community that were able to give them support to share the connections in their circles and help these families.” 

While Gawad found a lot of meaning and purpose in her work at Project 360, she also says she learned some hard lessons about running an organization. 

“I had the opportunity to go do my masters or try and make this organization bigger and I chose to pursue my masters,” she says. “At that point, I realized how unsustainable we were as an organization. It was very tight communication. If I wasn’t there, nothing would really work. So, I realized my biggest mistake was not making this sustainable, not enrolling members of the community into the program. 

“It was a hard lesson learned.” 

After completing her masters abroad, Gawad came back to Nova Scotia and worked briefly for the YWCA, but she wanted to offer more to newcomers, especially when it came to their financial well-being. 

“I presented a project to the provincial government at the time through the YWCA to try to replicate some of the projects from Project 360 on a bigger scale,” she says. “I got the funding and then the YWCA decided to take it in a different direction. At times, the strongest move you can make is to give space. I knew there had to be more sustainable ways of empowering individuals other than just hand out work and surface level work.” 

Gawad wasn’t content with the advice being handed out. She wanted people to feel emboldened and supported instead of having their previous accomplishments diminished. 

“It was advice like remove some of the designations off of your resume and cover letter so it can appeal to Canadian employers, like you need to lower yourself and your accreditations,” she says. “That was the kind of advice I was hearing.” 

This led Gawad on the road to her current role at Placemaking 4G. Their vision and purpose spoke to her and was the right move for her. 

“They were innovating in the space of value. They were trying to revolutionize the way HR was being done,” she says. “To connect individuals with purpose and values with organizations that would see that purpose and value and would leverage their experience instead of individuals ‘Canadianized’ experience. 

“The objective was to empower people to create changes for themselves and that lined up with my experience. I could just see myself, through my journey, in what they’re trying to do. It was an immediate lightbulb for me. I knew it was a place where I wanted to contribute.” 

Her first undertaking was a project called cluster employment, which bridged employers with each other and the talent they needed. 

“So many people are working precarious jobs here and there to make ends meet. The point of cluster employment is if your organization needs a marketing manager and yours needed a marketing manager, but neither of you can hire a full-time marketing manager, then come together to make a full-time job with the person working half the time here, half the time there. This way they get full-time hours, they get benefits, and it changes the amount of opportunities in the workforce,” Gawad says. “It creates more meaningful work in the gig economy.” 

Now she is working on blending her experience with her immigration journey with the vision of Placemaking 4G. 

“A lot of the work we do is around value-based recruitment and my area is around immigration. How can we connect the experiences people bring from their home country with the employer,” Gawad says. “We’re looking to meaningfully connect individuals from outside of Canada to employers in Canada. 

“That’s the place we are in right now, making those culturally inclusive workplaces where individuals can thrive. That’s the base of the work that needs to be done in Canada, in Nova Scotia, in the workplace; to educate people and organizations about what inclusive workplaces look like, what immigration looks like, what those processes look like, and how can you support them as an employer in making the transition easier.” 

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

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