Fariborz Birjandian: Helping Canadian Immigrants & Refugees Rebuild their Lives with Dignity & Hope

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Fariborz Birjandian, CEO of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society became a refugee when he left his home country of Iran with his family, and settled for a brief time in Lahore, Pakistan. It was there that he began his work with refugees through the UNHCR.

He was then resettled in Canada, where he volunteered with the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society (CCIS). Soon after, he began working for the organization as a Settlement Counsellor.

Fariborz has been the CEO of CCIS for the past 25 years, overseeing over 450 employees, 2,300 volunteers, and approximately 70 programs. His community involvement is varied and extensive.

He has served on numerous committees, boards, and task forces relating to immigration, refugees, diversity, equal rights, and the cultural arts, from the local to the international level.

Fariborz has also received numerous awards and recognitions for his contributions, including the Government of Canada’s Citation for Citizenship. This award recognized his outstanding achievements which have exemplified Canadian values and the principles of Canadian citizenship, greatly contributing to the lives of newcomers and the richness and strength of the country.

He was awarded the Queen’s Jubilee Commemorative Medal in 2001 for his “outstanding exemplary contribution to the community and to Canada as a whole.” He was also awarded the Alberta Centennial Medal in 2005 for his lifetime commitment to diversity and equal rights, as well as to improving immigration, refugee settlement, and integration policies and practices in Alberta. In 2012, he received the Queen’s Jubilee Diamond Medal and recently was awarded with the Queen’s Jubilee Platinum Medal.

Fariborz is dedicated to ensuring that the work of institutions, advisory groups, and all levels of government meets the needs of the larger community, particularly in terms of diversity.

Escaping Iran as a refugee

Growing up in Iran, Fariborz received a formal education in Maritime Science and Administration Management. He joined the Navy and was sent to the UK, graduating from the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth England, with part of his training conducted in the United States.

He became a naval officer and spent about 15 years in the Navy, reaching the rank of lieutenant commander. During this time, he refused to convert to the dominant religion in Iran and stood by his Ba’hai faith. As non-muslims in Iran, Fariborz and his family lost their rights as citizens, their employment, and their properties. They were fored to forfeit their passports and were no longer allowed to enroll their children in the school system. Ultimately, the pressure became intolerable and they chose to become refugees, opting for an uncertain future in a new country over the ongoing threat of persecution in Iran.

In 1987, Fariborz escaped to Pakistan with his mother, wife and two kids. 13 months later, he and his family arrived in Canada.

“There are millions of people with stories like mine. When I left the Navy, I couldn’t find a job. The government would not hire me. I had to survive. I was a ship captain, and my wife was a high school teacher, but we lost everything,” he recalls.

Helping refugees as a settlement counsellor in Canada

During his time in Lahore, Pakistan, Fariborz was invited to work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the local Ba’hai community, managing the well-being and resettlement of 1,800 refugees.

“It changed my whole view on life and who I wanted to become. When I came to Canada, I wanted to continue working with refugees. I was hired by CCIS, and also secured a job at a pizza shop to earn extra money for my family,” he says.  “In my job at the restaurant I became a staff of the year and received an award. That’s the only recognition I keep in my office. I’ve received three medals in Canada, and a citation of citizenship. I’m honoured to have them, but that particular award reminds me of where I first started when I arrived here.”

Fariborz worked as a Settlement Counselor at CCIS for a couple of years, before being promoted to Manager of the organization’s Business, Employment, and Training Services Division. In 1994, he became the CEO. What made Fariborz unique as the CEO of CCIS was his lived experience, as both a refugee who had started a new life in Canada, and a Settlement Counselor who had delivered settlement services to newcomers on the frontlines.

Building a welcoming place for newcomers

At the time that Fariborz became the CEO of CCIS, the organization had 45 staff, a couple of locations, and a budget of close to a million dollars. Today, CCIS is comprised of 450 staff who deliver programs out of close to 20 service locations. The organization now has a budget of close to 40 million dollars.

“I was only one player in this initiative, but I played the leading role and that’s where we are today,” Fariborz notes.

The goal of the organization, over the years, has been to build a comprehensive network of programs and services to support newcomers at every phase of their settlement journeys. The programs offered by CCIS not only address newcomers’ basic needs, but their safety and security, social integration, and mental and emotional wellbeing as well.

“That’s why I took the job very seriously. A lot of immigrants and refugees come with trauma and fear for their future,” says Fariborz. “I’m very committed because it is really making a difference in people’s lives; what we’ve done for them and what they’ve been able to achieve with our support is remarkable.”

Fariborz believes there are several key components to CCIS’ success. One is that all staff members at CCIS truly believe in the importance of their work and deliver their programs and services with a client-centred approach. They recognize the impact that they can have on each client, many of whom are experiencing one of the most vulnerable times of their lives.

“If you’re a doctor migrating to Canada, even if you have resources, you still face numerous challenges. We understand the importance of what we do. We also recognize the importance, and the value, of these vulnerable clients. They are future Canadian citizens. They’re our neighbours, classmates, and colleagues,” Fariborz notes.

Another key component of CCIS’ success are the people delivering the services and supports. CCIS is comprised of a multicultural, multidisciplinary, multilingual workforce. Many of the staff members came to Canada as immigrants or refugees themselves, and all staff members share the common goal of supporting the settlement and integration of their newcomer clients. Under Fariborz’s leadership, all staff members are given the opportunity to contribute their unique life experiences and their skills sets to the organziation’s overall mission.

“I’m CEO, but it doesn’t make me any more important than anybody else in the organization,” states Fariborz. “We try to create an environment where everyone is inspired to do their best- where everyone recognizes the value of the work they do. Every single person in the organization is extremely important. Our receptionist, who is the first point of contact has an important role at the organization. Our cook in our reception house who feeds refugees on a daily basis has a far higher impact on the refugees than the CEO.”

Innovating to make the lives of refugees & immigrants easier

Fariborz notes that innovation should be key to the culture of any organization, not just initiative.

The goal of CCIS’ work has always been to support the settlement and integration of newcomers in Southern Alberta, but Fariborz and his staff are always looking for new ways to achieve this. This innovative thinking has fueled many of the organization’s major achievements. A few examples include the development of CCIS’ Margaret Chisholm Resettlement Centre as a first home for Government Assisted Refugees in Calgary, and CCIS’ expansion into 10 rural and remote communities throughout Southern Alberta. In 2017, CCIS established the Centre for Refugee Resilience, where newcomers who have experienced trauma can receive therapeutic counseling and culturally sensitive mental health supports. One of CCIS’ most innovative projects to date is the Land of Dreams farm, where immigrants and refugees can connect with their new land, exchange stories with Indigenous elders, and learn to grow food in community.

One of the most unique and innovative aspects of CCIS is that, despite being a non-profit, the organization is run like a successful business. “When you look at our financial report, it’s amazing,” Fariborz remarks. He notes that while they are always reliant on their funders as a nonprofit organization, they also see about 4 million dollars in self-generated funds each year. “So, I don’t have to beg to buy 20 computers. I can actually buy them with our own funds. If we make some profit, it stays with organization, so we can actually subsidize some of the programs,” he states. CCIS is also unique in that it owns 3 of his own buildings.

Developing new protocols to manage risk during COVID

Fariborz points out that CCIS was the first agency to call a meeting regarding COVID. “We did a risk assessment to say who’s going to be impacted. We made sure that the population, especially the refugee population, was included in the overall city planning. Almost 2,000 of our refugees, including 250 single mothers, who arrived in the past two years prior to COVID, were identified as extremely vulnerable, and we began strategizing to make sure these vulnerable families received the necessary support.”

In collaboration with other agencies and community partners, CCIS developed a detailed protocol and a Crisis Response Team to identify and address the needs of these families on a case-by-case basis, ensuring that they had access to vital information, resources and culturally sensitive support. Through a centralized intake, the Crisis Response Team conducted individual assessments and created coordinated service plans to address newcomers’ immediate needs through direct resources, community referrals and logistical supports in the areas of family violence, mental wellness, health, housing and food security.

Although CCIS moved about 65% of its training and language programs online, the organization kept its doors open throughout the pandemic. With some restrictions and new policies and procedures in place, Fariborz and his team came to work every single day, because they knew that at least 2,000 refugees in the area needed their support, many of whom lacked the digital skills and access to technology required to participate in online services.

“Some of the health and safety protocols we developed were quite unique, profound, and comprehensive, and kept a lot of us safe. If we’d just closed and gone home, what would happen to those 250 single mothers?” he asks.

“Our approach to COVID is probably one of the highlights of our organizational history. All of our past work and learnings came together to address the uncertainty of the pandemic and support our most vulnerable population.”

Did it have an adverse effect on the health of the team of CCIS? “Of course, it did,” he remarks. “One of the things we have at CCIS is the Refugee Center for Refugee Resilience. Our team of mental health professionals at the Centre are experts in the field of trauma. These psychologists support our most vulnerable clients, but they are also who we bring in to talk to our staff.”

The huge changes in the immigration industry

Fariborz points out that there have been many changes in the immigration industry. “34 years ago, there were only 15 million people displaced people or refugees in the world. Now we have 70 million displaced people, so we’re living in a world that produces more refugees than ever,” he observes.

Another significant change Fariborz has observed in the field of immigration and settlement is the impact of technology. As a result of internet access, immigrants and refugees are more informed upon their arrival.

“We don’t have to talk about banking anymore, because they already have a bank account and can open a bank account even before they come to Canada. We don’t have to tell people how to go shopping,” he notes.

Fariborz points out that while some refugees have never seen a grocery store, they only comprise 5 per cent of their clients. 90 per cent need a different approach. “They want us to tell them how to look, and how to develop a 3–5-year plan; how to engage with employers, develop a network, build social capital,” he states.

Fariborz also points out that they’re now dealing with a different environment when it comes to employers, with more and more organizations focusing on diversity and inclusion, and offering more employment opportunities to newly arrived immigrants and refugees. “So, it’s improving. In the past if you went to many Canadian institutions, you’d hardly find any new immigrants working there, but this has changed now,” he points out.

Integrating work and life

Fariborz notes that his training and work in the Navy gave him a different view on work. When you’re on board a ship and sailing for 2 months straight, in the middle of nowhere in the ocean, work and life are integrated.

“The work I do is so meaningful, so wonderful, and such a blessing for me, that I have integrated my work into my life, and don’t have a separation,” he remarks. “If I’m having fun every day, mentally I’m quite sound.”

The key to managing the stress of being a CEO, according to Fariborz, is engaging an effective team and staying involved at all levels of the organization.

“I’m managing a 40 million dollars budget from almost twenty different funders, each of whom has their requirements. I have amazing directors around me that are smarter than me, and I rely on them. I’m also a hands-on individual. I keep in contact with my clientele, with the funders; I read a lot, pay attention to everything,” he notes.

Everyone benefits when immigrants & refugees do well

Fariborz points out that immigration is becoming more and more important to Canada’s social fabric and economic prosperity. As a result, immigrant serving agencies are playing an increasingly important role.

“The role of the immigrant serving agency is to recognize the unique value of newcomers- to acknowledge what they bring to our country, our culture, and our communities. And the role of the immigrant serving agency is help these newcomers reach their full potential here in Canada, because we’re all going to benefit when immigrants or refugees do well in our community,” he observes.

Fariborz’s advice for future leaders in his field is to understand first that immigration is a very complex process people are going through; second, is to understand that organizations like CCIS exist because there is a need for the services they offer. The proper settlement and integration support makes all the difference in the lives of newcomers arriving in Canada, and to their ability to succeed, contribute, and thrive.

“Our clients are the most important reason we come to work. When they arrive at our office for the first time, most of them are at their lowest point or their most vulnerable. They don’t have a job or friends; they are afraid and uncertain. So how can we help them to rebuild their lives? How can we support them and respond to their needs?” he asks.

Fariborz recalls being told that he needed to treat his clients like kings and queens, and the rest will happen. “This was so profound to me and it’s true, because these are people of capacity, people that manage to come to Canada. Obviously, they are smart and resilient. They know how to navigate a confusing and complex process to get here,” he states.

He also advises agencies to ensure that they’re the master of their domain, and to recognize the expertise they have gained from being on the front lines. As such, their role should be to share their experiences and knowledge with the government and the funders, and to act as a liaison between the newcomers they serve and the policy makers who shape their experiences.

Again, Fariborz returns to the client-centred approach. When speaking to him about his long career, and his advice as a CEO, his focus remains on the newcomers who come to CCIS seeking support, and on the profound impact that his organization can have as they start their new lives.