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'All my life I have not seen freedom,' says Somali health-care worker grateful to be in Nova Scotia

Gareth Hampshire · CBC News
Friday January 20, 2023

Mohamed Hussein moved from a refugee camp in Kenya, where he had lived for 29 years


After escaping civil war in Somalia with his family and then growing up in a Kenyan refugee camp that he could not leave, Mohamed Hussein is thankful for the chance to start a new life in Nova Scotia.   

He arrived in March 2021, among an early group of refugees from Africa who were offered work as continuing care assistants (CCAs) under the federal Economic Mobility Pathways Pilot program. He is one of 13 workers who moved to New Glasgow, N.S., to work at a local long-term care facility under the plan.

"I was so happy to change my life and to help also," Hussein said.

A recent Nova Scotia delegation to Kenya resulted in job offers to 65 other people currently living in refugee camps or in the capital of Nairobi, after fleeing violence and civil war in nearby countries.

Hussein trained in Kenya

The 34-year-old remembers thinking it was a joke when a settlement officer from the United Nations refugee agency explained Canadian employers were looking for people with medical backgrounds.

"It took almost 10 minutes to convince me," he recalls.

Hussein credits the education provided by the UN at the Dadaab refugee camp for setting him on the right path when he was awarded a scholarship to a medical training college outside the camp in Kenya.

That was the only way he could leave the facility he had been living at since he was three or four years old.

Mohamed Hussein is shown on the right at the front desk in 2006, during his first year in high school at the Dadaab refugee camp in eastern Kenya, close to the border with Somalia.

"I cannot get out of that camp literally because there are restrictions and refugees are not allowed to move out of those camps unless you are going for studies or medical emergencies," he said.

He completed a four-year program in clinical medicine and surgery, including a one-year internship in a teaching hospital, which he described as similar work to that of a physician's assistant.

With this experience, Hussein was identified as one of the skilled workers who could qualify for the program to move to Canada.

Even though he knew it would mean leaving his parents, four brothers and three sisters behind at the camp, he could not pass up the chance.

"This was an opportunity for me," Hussein explained. "I came from Somalia and all my life I have not seen freedom. All my life I have not seen opportunities, all my life I have not seen where I could showcase my potential."

His life has changed in ways he never expected, he said. It is still difficult for him to believe he now has the freedom to travel to Halifax whenever he wants, or even get on a flight to Toronto.

Hussein is already working toward becoming a licensed practical nurse and is currently taking a two-year, online program through Nova Scotia Community College. Once he's finished, he hopes to continue studying and working in Nova Scotia, with the  aim of becoming a registered nurse and eventually a nurse practitioner.

"I have had this passion since childhood to help people and even if I am out of the refugee camps there are still people who are sick and need help," he said.

Mohamed Hussein appreciates the opportunity he has been given to work in Nova Scotia after spending most of his life in a refugee camp in Kenya. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

'Really valuable' workers making a difference

Studying full-time means he's had to give up his job in continuing care and is instead working as a settlement counsellor with the YMCA in New Glasgow, which has also been a big support to him.

Nova Scotia Health officials say although some workers might leave their initial jobs in continuing care, they are likely to move into more skilled positions in Nova Scotia's health-care system, which is suffering from staff shortages at all levels, from various roles in nursing to family doctors and medical specialists.

The work that he and his colleagues who arrived from Africa have been doing is being recognized by the Pictou County Partnership that helped bring the workers to the region.

"It has been really exciting," said Becky Cowen, who is manager of workforce and immigration for the group.

Glen Haven Manor, a long-term care home in New Glasgow, N.S., actually made initial job offers to recruit the new CCAs in 2019, she said, but their arrival was delayed by the pandemic.

"They only started arriving in 2021, so that is a long time to wait for talent when you are having chronic shortages. But it was definitely worth the wait, so it has been really valuable," Cowen said, adding other sectors that need workers could also benefit from the program.

Becky Cowen of the Pictou County Partnership said the health-care workers who have settled in New Glasgow are needed during a time of chronic labour shortages.

Hussein is happy to see more refugees are now getting opportunities.

"That will be a win-win situation for everyone because Canada will get skilled immigrants and we are helping refugees get out of that temporary situation," he said.

The support he's received from people in the community makes him feel confident about the move the 65 refugees will soon be making.

"Everybody was so nice to us. We have become part of Pictou County and we say we are Nova Scotians now."

In the long term, he would like to bring his family to join him in Canada but he is currently focused on his goal of earning his nursing credentials.


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