Javaria Bokhari and her family fled Pakistan due to terrorism. After nearly two years in Surrey

SETTLING IN SURREY: Struggle to earn a living proves too tough for Pakistani professionals

A lawyer and a professor fled from Pakistan to Canada. How long does it take them to find work? Too long, the Bokhari family will tell you.

After fleeing Pakistan, the Bokharis gave it their all to start a new life for their family in Surrey. But earning a living here proved too tough for them.

FIRST IN A SERIES: In Surrey, 40 per cent of residents are immigrants. With this series, we look at the challenges they face as they struggle to build a new life here.

SURREY — A lawyer and a professor move to Canada from Pakistan. How long does it take them to find work?

Too long, the Bokhari family will tell you. For them, that day has yet to come.

It’s been nearly two years since Javaria Bokhari, her husband Jahangir and their two children arrived in Surrey – and the hunt for jobs in their respective fields has forced them to move to Ontario.

Their story is not unique.

Forty per cent of Surrey’s population were foreign-born. Plus, in a survey done by the Surrey Local Immigrant Partnership of more than 500 people, 41 per cent of local immigrants reported difficulty finding employment that matches their education and skills.

But back to the Bokharis.

They were fleeing the city of Peshawar, a Pakistani city rife with terrorism, regularly hit by suicide bombers.

Javaria, who has a PhD in clinical psychology, worked as an assistant professor in psychology at the Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Women University in Peshawar.

The school often received threats, as the Taliban aren’t keen on women being educated, she explained.

But her husband actually experienced the terrorism firsthand, she said.

“My husband was working practising law in the high courts. He, along with his colleagues and the judges present on those days, they were hostages (of) the Taliban on two occasions,” she said in an interview with the Now.

Her city, the capital of Pakistani province Kyhber Pakhtunkhwa, remains a dangerous place to this day.

In 2014, the group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) murdered 132 children and more than a dozen adults in a school in her city – the worst terrorist act in the country’s history.

“I have suffered all that terror. Because of these insecure conditions, we applied to migrate.”

They applied to come to Canada through the federal skilled workers program.

That was 2008, and in December 2013, the time had come to move. With her husband and two young daughters, she moved to Surrey.

A friend arranged a basement suite for the family in the Cedar Hills neighbourhood, but Javaria said their savings had dwindled after just a few months.

“Since that day we are struggling,” she said, “still far away from our own profession.

“I was mentally prepared for the cultural shock, but I wasn’t mentally prepared for the challenges in my professional life.”

Getting her credentials recognized didn’t prove difficult, she explained, but finding a job did.

She’d apply for jobs at universities throughout Metro Vancouver, but couldn’t seem to land one. The reason was different every time.

Javaria said one institution told her they simply found a better candidate. Another told her she was too qualified and they worried she’d leave after finding a better job.

Others told her she needed to build up her Canadian experience.

“When you have got a level of education and working experience on some very good posts, you’re not ready to go out of your expectations.”

Nonetheless, in an attempt to beef up her resume, she decided to volunteer at PICS (Progressive Intercultural Community Services) in Surrey where she would help new immigrants like herself access service and adjust to life in a new country. She volunteered there for more than 10 months.

“I’m a mental health professional, I have a degree, I have rich experience… but I was denied (employment),” she said. “What’s the use of doing this accreditation and bringing highly educated immigrants to your country and then not helping them adjust?… What else should I do? Should I start doing work at Walmart?”

Meanwhile, her husband’s credentials were still in the process of being evaluated.

He took what Javaria called a “survival job” as a security guard to keep the family afloat. He encouraged her to continue hunting for a job in her field while he kept food on the table.

Then, last April, Javaria landed a part-time job in SFU’s gerontology department as a research assistant. But after about four months, she quit. It just wasn’t enough to support the family.

The family picked up and moved to Ontario late this summer to pursue opportunities there.

“So we are again facing a new aspect of Canada.”

Javaria is now seeking jobs there, as a research assistant, settlement counsellor or lecturer. And her husband continues to wait for his accreditation.

Javaria would like to see the immigration process better prepare newcomers, noting she had no idea it would prove this difficult to find work in her field.

She had a friend who was a psychologist who immigrated to Canada and found a new job quickly. Her two brothers became Canadian citizens in 1998 and landed jobs as well.

“But when I came in 2013, the whole scenario was so different, challenging and demanding that I was bewildered,” she said.

“I have two points very important here on behalf of all the immigrants. The accreditation process should be done before the immigrants migrate from their countries…. The internet and the email process is so easy to be done from everywhere…. The second thing is that if they don’t have a job market for those people who are already settled in their countries, they should be given that information.

“I’m simply, simply not happy.”


A Vital Signs report card released in 2014 noted a number of factors inhibit one’s ability to establish a life in Surrey.

Lack of employment and affordable housing were two of the obstacles identified.

The report stated it takes newcomers about five years to find work at rates similar to the community’s employment rate.

And when they do find work, it’s at a lower pay scale ($33,668) than the median individual pay scale ($45,642).

“A lot of the issues are the same for both groups (youth and newcomers). It’s about getting started – getting established, getting a job, getting education, finding housing,” said Jeff Hector with SurreyCares, which produced the report.

“After coming to these conclusions, we decided to focus on a newcomer and youth Vital Signs report card.”

That report is expected to be released on Nov. 3.

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