Newcomers to Canada arrive with talent, skills and experience gained in their home country, and dreams of a brighter future. For internationally trained professionals, those dreams are often dashed by the realization their credentials aren’t recognized and obtaining them is unaffordable while they are in low-paying jobs, according to Windmill Microlending.

“Immigrants and refugees have always suffered in that there are systemic barriers to them restarting their careers in Canada,” says Claudia Hepburn, Chief Executive Officer of Windmill Microlending.

One of the biggest barriers is the cost of re-accreditation, coupled with a lack of access to affordable credit, which is based on a built-up credit score, Hepburn says. “It makes sense that we would want to make sure that people working in regulated professions have the right qualifications, but it’s a double whammy for so many who are financially tapped out.

“We’re trying to help as many people as we can put their skills to use both for their benefit and for Canada’s because we need their skills,” she says. 

Windmill provides low-interest loans of up to $15,000 to internationally trained professional newcomers across the country to help them obtain the accreditation and training required to work in their field. Since 2005, the charity, funded by the public and private sectors, has helped more than 6,400 immigrants requalify as health care workers, pharmacists, architects, engineers and other professionals needed in Canada. 

Windmill has seen considerable success, with unemployment among its clients dropping to 7% from 41% after receiving a loan, and recipients on average report tripling their income depending on their profession, it notes on its websites.

A loan from Windmill enabled Syrian-born Clodia Kanna to get her designation as Engineer-in-Training, the first step toward qualifying as a Professional Engineer. Growing up, Kanna was aware she was expected to live in the shadow of a man and be supported by him, a notion that didn’t fit with her dream to become an engineer. She was 19 years old when her uncle chose a husband for her. In her first year studying for her Bachelor of Civil Engineering, her husband asked her to leave university to take care of the house and cook. She refused but had to put up with mental abuse from him until she found a way out. 

Wanting to raise her daughter in a country where women have equality and the freedom to choose their own path, Kanna, after graduating, applied at the Canadian Embassy to be accepted as a skilled worker. The process took seven years, time she used to build experience working as a draftsman and project manager with a Syrian government department.

Clodia headshot

Photo: Clodia Kanna immigrated to Canada from Syria in 2008 and is now working as an engineer.

In 2008, Kanna arrived in Canada with her family, no money and no sponsor. Shortly after, she left her husband and started her journey with her seven-year-old daughter. Sadly, she says, her son chose to stay with his father. Once here, Kanna realized that despite her degree and experience, she couldn’t get a job in her field without upgrading her skills in English and acquiring Canadian accreditation as a professional engineer. As a single mother working the night shift on the front desk at an Edmonton hotel, she had no idea where the money would come from. With no credit history or Canadian references, a bank loan was out of the question, says Kanna, who appreciated that neither of these was required to get the funding from Windmill. 

“The first couple of years were hard, I was making very little money, and barely affording essentials,” Kanna says. “If it wasn’t for that loan, I would never have been able to take the required courses at the University of Alberta to get my designation back.” 

Kanna got her Canadian designation in 2014 and has been working in her profession since. She is also in the process of completing a Master’s in Business Administration online with University Canada West. 

As for her daughter, Kanna says “she has seen my struggle and she has heard me often say that we are fully capable of supporting ourselves. At 19, she is a very strong woman.” 

To help Windmill Microlending expand its program, Scotiabank made a landmark $2.5-million community investment that will allow the charity to help as many as 2,000 professionally skilled women immigrants with career mentoring and financial support over the next three years. The donation is part of ScotiaRISE, the Bank’s commitment to support programs and organizations that provide the tools people need to improve their education and employment prospects.  

“We are proud to continue to advocate for increased immigration and support of newcomers,” says Dan Rees, Group Head, Canadian Banking at Scotiabank. “Our $2.5-million investment in Windmill Microlending is one of the largest of its kind in Canadian history and affirms our ongoing commitment to help Canadian newcomers through ScotiaRISE, the Bank’s 10-year, $500-million initiative to promote economic resilience among disadvantaged groups,” he says. 

Women were hit particularly hard by the pandemic psychologically and economically, Hepburn notes, citing how when schools closed it often defaulted to women to stay home and when money is tight it is often the women who don’t pursue their careers. “This is a great way for Scotiabank to carve out its support,” she says. 

With its strong history of women leaders — from its founder Dr. Maria Eriksen, a Calgary-based clinical psychologist who organized the first six loans to help several internationally trained health professionals working as janitorial staff at the hospital where she worked requalify, to its board and senior management — Windmill ensures women are well represented in its portfolio, Hepburn says.  

Windmill’s biggest challenge is getting the word out about its service. “That’s one of the reasons we’re so thrilled about Scotiabank’s support,” Hepburn says, pointing to how Scotiabank is rolling out a message about the partnership on some 4,500 ATMS across its branches and third-party sites in Canada throughout the month of July. 

“We have to get the message to newcomers in the sweet spot of when they need the service, somewhere in the first five years,” Hepburn says. When newcomers first arrive, they have other distractions such as finding a place to live, getting their children in school, getting a survival job, and opening a bank account and they may not realize the cost of what it will take to get their professional career back on track, she says.  

“It’s such a leap of bravery to say, ‘I’m going to try again because I came here for a better life.’ For so many of us, our professional identity is a big part of our sense of who we are and what we’ve accomplished in life, our self-respect, and when that is taken away it can be psychologically devastating,” Hepburn says. 

It’s hard, agrees Kanna, “but, where there is a will, there is a way. 

“I see a lot of women immigrants suffer in silence. They don’t want to take that step because they’re afraid of the judgement from their community back home and here. This support that is specifically for immigrant women can be an incentive for them to pursue their careers and become financially independent.”