This year Randstad Canada’s immigrant/refugee employee resource group organized a round table discussion around immigrant/refugee experience in accessing employment in Canada. We had the chance to get to know Afreina Noor, founder of Afreno Areno (service to digital product firm), VP of Board of Directors for Centre for Community Organizations, and Communications Officer for Quebec Writers’ Federation.
Afreina Noor immigrated to Montreal, Canada near the end of 2018. Pakistani by origin, she grew up in Botswana and has also lived in America. As Canada is her fourth country, she did not anticipate the move to be as challenging as it has been. Passionate about women’s rights and realizing that she was not the only new immigrant feeling helpless and lost, she recently started an e-series titled ‘Conversations with Women Immigrants in Montreal’ while being actively involved as a moderator of ‘Women Who Freelance Montreal’, a fast-growing Facebook networking group.
We met with Afreina to discuss an important topic of intersectionality and the role it plays in the employment market.
afreina, can you explain in a few words what intersectionality is and how it is related to you in particular?
I actually feel like when talking about diversity, we often forget about intersectionality. For me, it’s how race, gender, culture, religion combine - you can be anywhere in the world and these factors will be used either in your favour or against you. Most of the time these factors, like race and gender, are out of your control. If you’re a person of colour, you’re Muslim, your head is covered and you’re a female - people see you, and you’re instantly put into a box. And this judgment takes away from what you bring to the table: your qualifications, training and experience. If we were to look at people beyond what we see, intersectionality would be a great advantage.
you’ve lived in four countries. how have you experienced intersectionality in canada as opposed to the USA, botswana and pakistan?
Compared to the Western countries, in Pakistan, for example, a woman who covers her head would be seen more positively than a woman who doesn’t, although a woman would still be disadvantaged compared to a man. Being a “brown” person, in Botswana, I was treated differently than someone with a darker skin tone - the lighter your skin tone, the more privilege you were receiving.
When I studied in America, I was living on a very liberal campus environment, so I don’t feel like there was much discrimination or anything of the sort, except for one or two instances when I placed myself in a specific setting like the Republican National Convention, where I was probably the only brown person. Somebody just came to me and asked: “Are you lost?” Americans won’t leave you second-guessing, and they’ll let you know what they mean, which to me is the lesser evil between wondering if you’re a victim of racism or knowing that you actually are.
But it was completely different when I moved here to Montreal. There were situations when I was instantly profiled, boxed, and some people were rude to me for no reason. I was often asking myself: “Did I say something I shouldn’t have said? Is it because I’m speaking English (and not French)?” There was a lot of self-doubt. As I met other people, I realized: no, it wasn’t because I was speaking English, and it was not because of the way I was dressed - it’s simply because I am a brown woman. And that some people simply didn’t like immigrants.
While I was looking for a job, I was told to black out my name, where I had studied and worked, or give myself a French name. And, to me, these are all the things that make my résumé rich. I heard things like “Don’t write too many achievements - you’re coming across as too much or too big for positions”. But, to me that meant, if I need to shrink myself, then it’s not an organization I want to be part of. They’ll have to accept all the richness that I bring.
you have extensive experience in project management, innovation and research. was becoming an entrepreneur a part of your career plan when you moved to canada?
I consider myself a generalist and thought that all these skills were easily transferable. I intentionally diversified my résumé over the years. And I wasn’t thinking of becoming an entrepreneur because I knew it was difficult - finding people that are willing to pay for your services is not easy. But I was kind of pushed to become an entrepreneur, and maybe it’s the push I needed.
are you experiencing intersectionality differently now that you’re self-employed?
It’s surprising, but in this sense, being an entrepreneur is easier. When it’s an organization, you’re not just convincing the hiring manager, you’re also convincing five other people to hire you. In Québec, I also felt that the very first point of contact - my résumé - was already filtered out. When you’re convincing somebody to buy your services, it’s also up to you who you choose to approach. Before clients even start working with me, they’ve seen my profile, my work, they’ve seen that I’m a woman of colour on Facebook or LinkedIn, so they know who they will be interacting with. In a sense, it’s liberating - if I don’t feel that openness, I can just easily say that this is not the partnership I am looking for. I feel more empowered. In an organization, you just have to make it work.
What I’ve learned from the experience, is that we have to approach our jobs as if we were consultants, as if the company is hiring our services. I would probably look at job search very differently now. I wouldn’t look at a vacant position saying: “Hey I can do that!” Instead, I would probably look first at the organization and say: “Is this even a place I want to work at?”
knowing what you know now, would you consider going back to working for a company? if so, what kind of company could make you change your mind and apply?
I’m actually also working full-time for a non-profit right now. When I was approached about this opportunity, I vetted the company first. The Quebec Writers’ Federation fulfilled my core values: it’s a place for immigrants, a place where people who do not speak French can find workshops and opportunities within the arts. It has a voice for the minorities. That’s why it’s more than a job.
so, that openness to immigrants and diversity was actually one of the top considerations on your list?
Absolutely! We recently had events on Pride, and Israel and Palestine. Just to see that there is a platform to have these engaging conversations about real issues makes it more than just an organization for English writers in Quebec.
you’re also leading an e-series ‘conversations with women immigrants in montreal’ and moderating the ‘women who freelance montreal’ group on social media. can you share some insights on this intersectional group’s experience in accessing the canadian labour market? are you noticing any trends?
When I started the e-series “Conversations with Women Immigrants in Montreal”, I’ve heard other women of colour say that it took them much longer than it should have to find a job. Some women said that they had to shrink themselves: if they had done two degrees, they had to completely eliminate one from their résumé, show themselves as less educated. It is a different experience for a white woman compared to a woman of colour. The white women I spoke to had none of the above issues - it was a seamless integration for them, even if they didn’t speak French.
Now that I work for an NGO, I also get exposed to a lot of other organizations. I feel that there is a huge emphasis on diversity and inclusivity now, and I really like that. When candidates see these organizations, they recognize themselves there. Before, I felt that some organizations cared less about the job and the skills than they were about hiring someone that looks and speaks like them.
what would be your advice to organizations seeking to attract more diversity, specifically immigrants?
It’s not about organizations hiring diversity as a charity case. It’s about hiring the best candidate, no matter where they come from. We already see organizations saying that they’re an equal opportunity employer, but maybe if they also added “we encourage immigrants to apply” this would indicate that even though a person doesn’t always have Canadian experience, the company recognizes experience from other countries as valuable. Just putting in that one word - “immigrants” - will definitely get more of them to apply, because a lot of immigrants actually say to themselves: “Oh, I don’t have Canadian experience”. It’s very easy for them to get discouraged in the first six months they arrive. Your self-esteem breaks down and your confidence starts to shatter.
even though you already shared some tips, is there any last advice you’d like to give to immigrants looking for a job?
It’s easy to get disheartened and just stay at home because you have no real reason to step out. The resources are always scattered. And if you’re new, you don’t know about different resources that can help you. It took me a year to figure it out! When you do put yourself out there, you’re getting more nos than yeses in the beginning. When you’re an immigrant, you don’t have a network. It’s the toughest part of the experience.
So, my biggest advice would be - network! COVID worked to my advantage in the sense that there were many virtual meetup groups. If they were in person, I’m not sure if I would be able to attend all of them. For example, you can attend LinkedIn local events every month, they are available both in English and French. It’s an amazing networking opportunity, but also a way to practice your language skills.
Before the pandemic, when you asked to meet somebody for coffee, you had to make a whole plan, and now people are much more open to giving you a chunk of their time online. In my experience, just talking to people would lead to another person or a resource. Something useful always comes out of it! More people are open to having a conversation than they are to a ‘find me a job!’ cry. You can just start a conversation by saying: “How did you get to where you are now in your career?” Something I also realized is that what I’m going through is unique, but we all have a shared experience as immigrants. Don’t be afraid to reach out!
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