Nicodeme Mugisho-Demu was a physician in his homeland of the Democratic Republic of Congo, directing a program for refugee women who had been victims of rape in the civil war that continues to ravage the region.
“I came from a struggling middle-class family and my father sold a camera that was given as a gift to him so I could write my medical exams,” he said.
But after he arrived in Canada in 2008, Mugisho-Demu was faced with a new problem: he couldn’t practice medicine. Although he tried to apply for the exams required to enter residency training in Canada, he ended up frustrated and emotionally drained. He had little choice but to take work as a security guard to keep a roof over his head.
But thanks to an innovative program in his downtown St. James Town neighbourhood, Mugisho-Demu now not only has found a new career in medicine. He is also helping other new Canadians who find themselves in the same situation.
Community worker Chris Hallett helped create the International Educated Professionals Program — which offers mentoring and life coaching, to help people gain meaningful employment in the Greater Toronto Area — five years ago, after he noticed that many of the doctors, dentists and other medical professionals who, like him, lived in St. James Town, were working as security guards and store clerks. The reason: like Mugisho-Demu, they were new immigrants, and their qualifications were not recognized in Canada.
“As we listened to the community; there was a deep frustration with the lack of opportunity to practice their profession here,” Hallett recalls. As a former head of a manufacturing company, he realized the squandered skills of international health professionals could be repackaged for meaningful employment in health care.
Angered by the waste of talent, Hallettt decided to do something. Through Community Matters, a non-profit set up in 1999, he and his partner Margaret Coshan devised the professional program.
Internationally trained doctors have been integrated into the Canadian health-care system since 1987, with provincial governments adding them to the health professional workforce mainly in underserved areas. However, even for those with the right credentials, finding a job has been challenging, with only 22 per cent of applicants matching up with a training program in 2017.
Health Force Ontario, the largest group in Ontario assisting foreign-trained professionals navigate the complex system of regulated health professionals, has seen fewer immigrants entering the health care system in recent years.
Thneya Hassan Ali, operations co-ordinator, noted “there has been a decrease in International Medical Graduates enlisting in our services.”
Hallettt started with a seminar about accreditation for health professionals, and worked with a small group comprising six doctors, a dentist and a nutritionist. Over the next five years, the project has evolved into three 12-week workshops a year, each attended by six to eight international trained health professionals per session. The program has had more than 100 participants including doctors, nurses, pharmacists, health technicians and dental surgeons from a variety of countries including Egypt, Iran, Nepal and South East Asia.
The program has created jobs at Women’s College in Toronto for medical research, and some participants have found work at pharmaceutical companies such as Johnson & Johnson. Others have started their own medical businesses. The program is run in partnership with the Regent Park Community Health Centre’s Dental Services and the University of Toronto School of Dentistry backed up by internationally trained dentists awaiting their accreditation. They lead prevention workshops and, once they qualified they deliver low-cost service at the Centre.
“Only two out of the hundred participants have not been able to find meaningful employment,” Hallett says. The program receives no funding from the government and instructors are volunteers from the area.
Hallett credits the success of the program to its practicality. “We are instilling resilience and confidence tools so people can continuously be evaluating their skills and keep looking for employment” he says.
Thanks to the program and Mugisho-Demu’s ingenuity, the Congolese immigrant was able to train as career adviser. He works one-on-one with other internationally trained doctors, helping them to gain the confidence to find a niche in the Canadian health care system.
Mugisho-Demu, now a husband and father of two little girls, is a different man than when he arrived in Canada 10 years ago. He no longer has an ambition to practice medicine, but he feels he has found a meaningful new career. “I have a bigger impact now that I am helping other international medical graduates find jobs as physicians or doing other meaningful work because if one of us is losing, all of us lose,” he said.