Careers: The Long and Winding Road to the Top

by Shaffiq Dar

Born in Kenya, I went to England for postsecondary education and I graduated with honours in Law from the University of Reading. After returning ‘home’ to Kenya, I practiced law with one of the best firms in Nairobi and early in my career, established a reputation in banking and insurance related litigation. I was head of the litigation department in the firm and had five lawyers working under me. Four years later, I made partnership in the firm.

Life should have been wonderful, but I could never come to terms with the corruption that existed in every aspect of life in Kenya. In Kenya, a bribe is known as ‘chai’ or tea. The traffic policeman, the immigration officer, the court clerk…everywhere that I went someone wanted chai. It was well known in the legal community which judges were corrupt, and if your case was listed for hearing before a particular judge, you either tried to have the case adjourned or advised your client to go and ‘negotiate’ with the judge. The highest bidder would win!

When I realized I was becoming a part of that system, my wife and I decided that it was time to immigrate.

The application was a breeze. Within months, we were called for the interview. The visa officer asked why I was giving up a successful career in Kenya to immigrate to Canada. Did I know how difficult would be to find employment as a lawyer in Canada? At the time, I did not realise the import of that question.

I had done my homework and knew the process that would be involved in getting my Canadian accreditation. I had emailed my résumé to several employment agencies and had received some favourable replies from agencies that led me to believe that they would be able to place me with a law firm as a paralegal or a law clerk soon after I arrived.

With a false sense of confidence, I landed in Canada in July 2002. The encouraging employment agencies now, surprisingly, found me either over-qualified or lacking in Canadian experience. I cannot tell you how many people I asked, “How can I have Canadian experience? I am a new immigrant!”

Bills had to be paid and daycare for our two year old was a drain on our savings. My wife Jumana was the executive assistant to the president of an international corporation in Kenya, but here she happily took a job as a customer service representative at Futureshop. As for me, my first Canadian experience was at Walmart.

Everyone around us, especially other new immigrants in our apartment building, had the same negative outlook. They’d tell us that he or she is a doctor and has been here for ten years working as a cashier at the local Shoppers Drug Mart, or that person is a teacher and is now babysitting the neighbourhood kids at home.

When I was growing up, my father would tell us, “You can wash anything off your hands, except blood.” In this way, he taught us not to be ashamed of doing any work, so long as it was legitimate and did not hurt anyone else.

One day, for reasons I cannot now remember (but which probably had something to do with potty training) my wife told our two year old daughter, “You can wash anything off your hands, except blood.”

And at that point it was like the light came into our lives. Our outlooks completely changed. Until then we had felt short-changed by the Canadian immigration system. We needed someone to blame, and we blamed the system. The system was not fair. The complaints were many.

But nobody brought me here. It was my own decision. Nobody promised to give me a job as soon as I landed. In fact, I knew from the start that I needed to re-qualify. My wife and I made a list of what our goals were and how to achieve them. I absolutely had to go back to school. I had invested too much in being a lawyer to let that go.

I wrote to the Law Society and applied to have my qualifications assessed. Their accreditation committee informed me that I would have to sit for eight exams to re-qualify to Canadian standards. We engaged in back and forth communication and eventually, the Law Society reduced the requirement for me to three papers – Canadian Constitutional Law, Administrative Law and Taxation – and I got a handwritten note from the Chair of the accreditation committee that these were the basic three papers that all Canadian law students must complete!

A mistake that many newcomers make is in the kind of jobs they apply for. When I first landed in Canada my résumé was impressive, but got me no interviews.

My wife and I looked at our résumés from the point of view of potential employers. Even I would not want to hire as a law clerk someone who told me in his résumé that he had headed a litigation department in a large law firm in Kenya. I would not want to invest time, energy and money in training the guy, only for him to jump ship the first opportunity he got. The employers were not being unfair. They were doing what any reasonable person in their place would do.

And we avoided the ‘negative-people’ or the ‘put-me-downers’ as my wife called them. When our neighbours asked us how we were doing, we truthfully told them that we were happy because:

  • We had decided to immigrate to Canada and we were here.
  • We had a home and food on the table;
  • We had employment, maybe not in our own fields, but it paid the bills.
  • We were healthy and safe.
  • We were doing what we needed to do to re-qualify and to better ourselves.

After a couple of months at Walmart, I was jumping with joy when I got a temporary assignment at TD Bank’s mortgage centre, as a Customer Service Representative on the lawyer’s helpline. So when mortgage instructions were sent out to the lawyer and he did not understand certain conditions, he would call the lawyers’ helpline and speak to Shaffi q. I used the time between calls to study for my exams.

My supervisor at TD Bank was very supportive and encouraged me to apply for other positions within the Bank. I slowly progressed within TD Bank, first into a permanent position, and then as a Team Leader in the In-House Registration Department.

My wife gave up a permanent position at Futureshop to take on a temporary assignment at George Brown College, which also turned into a permanent position and she continues to rise through the ranks in the college.

Advice for Others

Be prepared to take risks. Set your goals and then work towards them. What I find is that many immigrants get comfortable and do not want to risk losing that comfort to aim higher. The doctor working as a cashier at Shoppers Drug Mart is still there because he says he cannot afford to pay to re-qualify and he needs the income to sustain his family. True. But he can afford to go on a vacation every year. He can afford a new car.

And yet every chance that he gets, he complains about lack of opportunities for skilled professionals like himself.

I would be lying if I told you what I went through was easy. It wasn’t.

Having practised as a lawyer, it was difficult to ‘go back to the books’. On the weekends and after work, I had errands to run, chores to do and wanted to spend time with my growing family. But I had my wife behind me, pushing me along, insisting that I go to the library every Saturday to do some studying.

Once I completed my accreditation process with the Law Society, I applied for positions with law firms. But instead of applying to the large or top tier firms, I targeted the smaller, sole practitioner law firms. At this point in my life, the hands-on experience was more valuable than a higher salary. Knowing I would have to start from the bottom of the ladder, I applied for the position of law clerk. I told the interviewer that he would get a qualified lawyer for the price of a law clerk. I kept my expectations low. I did not ask for unrealistic salaries because of my experience as a lawyer. Instead, I told my potential employer what my goals were and that I was working toward my Canadian qualification. My honesty paid off. I soon found employment as a real estate clerk at a law firm in Brampton.

I articled with the same firm and upon completion of my Bar exams, I was called to the Bar of Ontario in June 2007 – four years, 11 months and 12 days after I immigrated to Canada.

I am today an associate at Aylesworth, a firm that has been in existence since 1861. People I know are saying, oh, he is lucky; he got a job with a Bay Street law firm. And to them, I say it is not luck. It was positive thinking, a supportive family and hard work. We made many sacrifices and kept our focus on our goal.

We listened to ourselves, not to the ‘put-medowners’. We reminded ourselves constantly of why we were here. And we made the extra effort to enjoy what we had.

And we are teaching our daughters to appreciate that you can wash anything off your hands, except blood.