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On the front lines of immigration

Concordia alumni have an impact in government and agencies dealing with immigration and refugees issues
April 30, 2018

The global refugee crisis has affected countries around the world. According to the latest numbers from the United Nations Refugee agency, there are nearly 22.5 million forcibly displaced people on the planet. In 2016, Canada responded by accepting 46,700 refugees, surpassing its previous record set in 1980.

Many of Canada’s newest residents come from Syria, a country that has been engulfed in a violent civil war since 2011. And Canada is definitely an attractive destination for others from around the globe, especially given the recent public threats and statements out of United States — such as a possible travel ban and U.S.- Mexico border wall and questions about immigrants coming from certain countries who don’t share American values.

Their resettlement of all immigrants is being aided thanks to the dedicated work of the Canadian public service, many of whom are proud Concordia alumni.

By Joel Bard and Toula Drimonis

Global citizen

Leah Borsa, MA 98 Leah Borsa is assistant director of Refugee Protection Policy for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada in Ottawa.

As the assistant director of refugee protection policy for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada in Ottawa, Leah Borsa, MA (PPPA) 98, manages a policy team that handles refugee-related issues.

Working for the government has provided the challenging and intellec- tually stimulating career Borsa always wanted. “I’m driven by learning, not money,” she explains. “And for me, my work feels like doing a PhD in real time. That’s what I love most.”

Currently, her team is working on a United Nations initiative that will seek to address the global refugee crisis. The international agreement — known as the Global Compact on Refugees — will set out guidelines for how to handle refugee related-issues like asylum, resettlement and integration. “It is one of the most exciting things I have worked on over my career,” she says.

Prior to joining Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, Borsa spent six years with Canada’s Human Rights Commission, where she helped develop international human rights policy.

Collaborative work

Borsa’s career has taken her to New York City, Geneva, Switzerland and “maybe 10 other countries.” Nonetheless, when speaking about her achievements she’s careful to underline that importance of coordination with a team. “Any good bureaucrat will tell you they don’t do anything alone,” she explains. “It’s all about collaboration.”

Borsa can trace her interest in global affairs to a young age. “I’ve always had a broader perspective and have been curious about the world,” she says.

“I like the idea of being a global citizen and contributing to the global good in a positive way.”

As an undergraduate student in economics at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, she thought that a career in international law would be her ticket. However, a professor suggested Concordia’s Master in Public Policy and Public Administration degree as a “more pragmatic” option. The program blends an academic focus and work experience. It is designed for people who want to make a difference in the world. The program is also an excellent bridge to government — many of its alumni head into public service.

During her studies, Borsa took a class on alternative dispute resolution. The methods, she explains, were rooted in Indigenous philosophies and helped shape her future work with the Human Rights Commission. Other aspects of the program — like international relations theory and how to evaluate programs — help her in her current role.

Working on refugee-related issues feels particularly important now to Borsa, at a time when the rhetoric around refugees is charged and some countries are opposing the entrance of any asylum seekers. “Canada has had a longstanding human rights tradition of responding to the needs of the most vulnerable,” she says. “It’s one of our values.”

—Joel Bard

Imparting Canada’s values

Himmat Shinhat, BComm 80 After a long career with Immigration and Citizenship Canada, in 2016 Himmat Shinhat began working with Syrian refugees as director of outreach for the Syrian Refugee Resettlement Initiative in Ottawa, his last stop before retiring in 2017.

When Himmat Shinhat, BComm 80, moved to Canada from England in the late 1970s, he felt a sense of disappointment. Montreal, in his experience as a member of a visible minority, was years behind England regarding multiculturalism and integration. 

Eventually Shinhat found his way to a place where things seemed different — Concordia. There, Shinhat found a “network of South Asian friends” and a “very progressive” student body and faculty that gave him the sense of be- longing he longed for. “There was a lot more attention paid to being inclusive with respect to racial and class diversity,” he says. The university was also a hotbed of progressive politics, which resonated with him.

Shinhat soon fell in love with studying marketing, and developed a special appreciation for his former professor Donald R. Emery. Shinhat says the long-time Concordia faculty member in what is now the John Molson School of Business was “way ahead of the curve” when it came to understanding cultural shifts that were taking place. “I felt he was a role model for me. He was constantly reinforcing you, telling you your identity is legitimate and to be who you are.”

Policy advisor

After graduating, Shinhat began working with a South Asian advocacy organization. Quickly rising through the ranks, within four years he was named the organization’s executive director. In the 1980s, he was recruited by Citizenship and Immigration Canada (now Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada).

As an immigration officer, Shinhat used his communication and interpersonal skills to deal with a wide range of people. He developed a framework for the assessment of business immigrants, based on the knowledge he had acquired through his studies at Concordia. The model was subsequently shared across the department.

Over the years, Shinhat advanced through the department, eventually be- coming a senior policy advisor and later holding a series of senior executive positions as a policy director in areas such as refugee protection, citizenship and multiculturalism. As a policy advisor, he worked on initiatives aimed at protecting the human rights of immigrants.

One example was the development of a system for immigration officers to assess the relative safety of a given country. The system, known as the Pre-Removal Risk Assessment, is used to ensure that asylum people without legal status in Canada, including those whose refugee claims have not been accepted, are not sent into harm’s way.

Shinhat has also worked passionately to make the public service more tolerant and understanding of LGBTQ issues and people. He was the chair of the Positive Space Network at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. This initiative seeks to build understanding and support the inclusion of LGBTQ staff. He estimates he has trained more than 50 positive-space ambassadors. “The ultimate goal is to make sure the workplace is safe, inclusive and respectful,” says Shinhat.

In 2016, Shinhat switched gears and began working with Syrian refugees. As director of Outreach for the Syrian Refugee Resettlement Initiative in Ottawa, he played a key role in coordinating goodwill donations and offers of assistance to refugees — which aligned with his values and his experience in the area of refugee protection.

“I wanted to do something exciting for my transition towards retirement,” explains Shinhat, who retired in 2017. Witnessing Canadians’ openness and generosity towards Syrian refugees, Shinhat says, has been “incredibly inspiring. Refugee issues are related to fundamental human rights and social- justice issues. I felt that it was important to get involved.”

—Joel Bard

Vital liaison

Ryan Johnson, BA 03 As a learning advisor For Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada in Vancouver, Ryan Johnson serves as a liaison between immigration officers and course developers.

Living in Montreal was always a dream for Ryan Johnson, BA (poli. sci.) 03. The city’s dynamism and multiculturalism seemed a world away from the prairie town of Brandon, Man., he grew up in.

In 1999 he made the move, and enrolled at Concordia as a mature student. The experience changed his life. “Going to Concordia opened up my eyes to so many things with respect to different cultures and different types of people,” Johnson says. “Being exposed to so many cultures really enriches your sense of self. It truly opens up your mind and broadens your perspective.”

Johnson credits his time at the university with something that is rarely talked about in conversations about higher education. Concordia, he explains, helped him develop “cultural sensitivity” — a skill that he feels has played a vital role in his success in the public service.

After earning a degree in political science in 2003, Johnson wrote a set of government entrance exams aimed at recent university graduates. Thanks to his strong performance, he was eventually offered a job as an immigration officer in Kelowna, B.C. The job, he soon found, matched his interests and education. “I like and understand operations, and that is why I was well suited to the position,” Johnson says.

He soon moved up the professional ladder, landing a managerial position overseeing other officers. Since 2015, he has worked as a learning advisor for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada in Vancouver. He serves as a liaison between immigration officers and course developers to ensure that the officers are up to date in their training and that their training reflects current laws. “Legislation is changing all the time,” explains Johnson. “We have to make sure we’re updating courses and content to reflect it.”

Strong training

The job brings him a tremendous sense of pride. “I think I’m an integral component of the division,” Johnson says. “Without learning and training projects, staff wouldn’t be able to do their job, which is to ensure the safety and security of Canadians.”

Johnson’s work requires first-rate communication skills and an ability to work well with multiple stakeholders. He credits that ability to write clearly and efficiently — developed at Concordia — with helping him thrive. “We had a million papers to write!” he recalls of his courses. “I used to really hate writing essays — but in hindsight, I’m happy we had the opportunity to, because I think my written communication skills are what got me to where I’m at.”

Public service has given Johnson plenty of opportunities to learn and improve. Over the years, he has participated in numerous training programs. The most memorable was a two-week introduction to Kaizen, a Japanese method for improving operational systems.

After finishing the course, he was able to cut out inefficiencies in his division, streamlining processes that had been in place for years. His efforts had a significant impact on improving operations, and he is proud to have been a part of implementing them. “What came out of it was absolutely amazing,” says Johnson.

—Joel Bard

Making a difference — in both official languages

Helene Panagakos, BA 92 Helene Panagakos, who has been with the department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada since 1998, first worked with the immigration and refugee board and is now director for the Citizenship and Passport Cases division of the Case Management Branch.

Helene Panagakos, BA (trans.) 92, attributes in part her career success with the Government of Canada’s Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Department to her aptitude in mastering both official languages. She, in turn, owes that to Concordia. 

“I think that coming out of university proficient in each official language — both in my written and my oral skills — allowed me to compete for management and senior management positions in the past 20 years, as this is a prerequisite in the federal public service,” she says. “I can honestly say that was because of the program I did at Concordia.”

Panagakos, who has been with the department since 1998, first worked with the Immigration and Refugee Board as a decision-maker. She is now director for the Citizenship and Passport Cases Division of the Case Management Branch.

“The core of my responsibilities involves dealing with highly contentious, sensitive and high-profile cases that pertain to citizenship and passports,” Panagakos explains. She adds that most of her division’s work revolves around revoking citizenship from people who have acquired it through fraud or misrepresentation, as well as rendering decisions on discretionary grants of citizenship.

“In my day-to-day routine, I prepare documentation and reports for either senior-level or ministerial briefings and reviews. I develop strategic analysis and provide guidance and advice to support the minister [Ahmed Hussen, minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship] in very specific and often contentious files,” she says.

A happy and productive time at Concordia

Panagakos has fond memories of her alma mater, where she studied translation in Concordia’s Département d’études françaises. “Translation was a very demanding program” she says. “What I found amazing about the program is that it allowed me to excel in my writing and communication skills, while also developing excellent analytical skills. All those were key skill sets for a lot of the positions I’ve held throughout my career.”

Those competencies have also helped as her role changed over the years. Panagakos notes that her work has been influenced by legislative changes as well as amendments to the Citizenship Act.

“With respect to the humanitarian component of the department, that doesn’t necessarily affect our work on the citizenship front, but there are bills that pass that impact our work,” she says. “The Syrian refugee situation, for example, didn’t necessarily affect me and my division directly, although everybody in the department was asked to help out by giving up resources during that initiative.”

Panagakos says the best part of her job is making a difference in the lives of Canadians. “The government machinery is big and sometimes moves slowly. Yet at the end of the day, I feel tremendous gratification knowing that I make a difference in somebody’s life,” she says.

As the child of immigrant parents, she adds, “I feel blessed to be born here. From the outset of my career, my objective was always to make a difference and to be able to give back to this amazing country.”

—Toula Drimonis, BA 93

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