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Joseph Aduta: From civil war refugee to Calgary heavy auto mechanic

When Joseph Aduta arrived in Canada, he never thought he’d be working as a heavy auto mechanic.

Tall, broad smiled, and every bit at ease on a Calgary shop floor; he’s in his element taking apart and reassembling tractor-trailers.

Aduta belongs to a generation of young men from Sudan known as the Lost Boys.

As the brutal second Sudanese Civil War raged from the mid-1980s into the early 21st Century, millions of refugees from Southern Sudan fled to neighbouring nations. Aduta himself spent 10 years in a Kenyan refugee camp, where, because of the civil war, he was split from his family.

His family, he said, didn’t know if he was alive—or dead.

In 2004, nearing the end of the war, Aduta was offered the opportunity to be resettled in Canada by the Canadian Government.

Arriving to a wintry Windsor, Ontario, he was in time able to find minimum-wage work at a golf course.

That would last him for five years while he was attending school. Eventually, a friend from his high school convinced him to move to Calgary for better employment opportunities. He was able to get a better-paying job at a warehouse. It paid him $2 more an hour than he was making at the golf course.

He laughs about it now.

“The money was like a jump, and I was like ‘really? I wasted so much time,'” he said.

In 2013, he travelled back to Kenya in search of his family. He discovered that many of his family members had been displaced all over East Africa. Some to the north of Sudan, others to Uganda.

Eventually, he was able to reunite with his mother.

“She couldn’t recognize me because I’m now this grown man,” he said. It was nearly 20 years from when he saw her last.

It was a bittersweet reunion, being able to reconnect with his mother, and eventually some of his sisters’ and brothers’ families. Though, not all of his family made it through the civil war unscathed. He discovered that several of his brothers had been killed.

With a downbeat in his voice and more than a little exasperation, he said that Southern Sudan—his homeland—is a mess.

“And even right now, it’s still a mess, you know.”

Today, Aduta is able to send money home to his family. He laughed with a bit of false modesty.

“Well I’m not helping the entire village.”

Yet that financial support he provides has given a quality education to his nieces in Uganda.

“The school that they go to is just a local school in Uganda. It’s better because it’s kind of like a boarding school where they have food and access to that education,” he said.

Joseph Aduta, a graduate from Momentum’s heavy auto mechanic program, at his workplace at TIP Canada on Wednesday, December 1, 2021. Aduta was one of the lost boys of the second Sudanese civil war, before coming to Canada in 2004. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Momentum for a better life

After 15 years in Canada, Aduta is a part of a growing community of people helped by Momentum to build skills and find quality employment in Calgary.

The Momentum pre-apprenticeship skills program provides immigrant and Indigenous Canadians free trades training through SAIT. They also get financial literacy courses through the organization.

“It really is sort of an entry-level appetizer to the trades,” said Adam Krygier, employment coordinator with Momentum.

“It helps them get a foot in the door in terms of starting an apprenticeship or a career in the trades.”

The organization offers courses in carpentry, plumbing, pipe fitting, and in Aduta’s case, automotive equipment training.

The program is free for participants and is funded by the Government of Alberta. Momentum also works with employers to find practical work placements and employment opportunities for their program graduates.

Returning to Canada after re-connecting with his family, Aduta knew he wanted something better for himself, and for his family abroad.

A friend of Aduta’s, and fellow graduate from the Momentum trade skills program, who now owns his own pipe fitting business, suggested he take the courses offered by the organization.

“There’s uncertainty in warehousing and all that stuff, right? So you never know if you’re going to have a job tomorrow, the next day,” he said.

“I wanted something other than just a job—I want to make a career so I could at least make a little bit so I could start helping.”

Aduta said he chose to work in the heavy automotive sector because of the money, but also emphasized the enjoyment he gets from getting to work on large vehicles.

“It’s pretty much different things every day, but at the end of the day there’s always going to be jobs,” he said.

Motivation is apparent

Aduta was able to take advantage of the trades skill training program offered by Momentum because of his status as a refugee. Yet, he said, it wasn't easy for him to get into the program on the first try in 2018.

"So I did that math aptitude test that they have at Momentum - the first time I failed," he said. But undaunted, he doubled down on studying and was able to pass a few weeks later.

That level of motivation is also not hard to miss in the refugee statistics for Canada. In 2004, the year that Aduta came to Canada, the Canadian Government welcomed 32,695 refugees to the nation. It would be one of the highest years on record for refugee admittance to Canada until the Syrian crisis in the mid-2010s.

in that year, 1,827 people from Sudan would be admitted to Canada as permanent residents.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), new refugees have a slightly higher unemployment rate than the general population, but this quickly becomes the same as the general population the longer a refugee stays in Canada.

Krygier is a strong proponent of the qualities that graduates from the pre-apprenticeship program bring to employers.

"These are individuals that are dedicated to starting a career in these fields as well and are motivated to work their way through an apprenticeship," he said.

He said they bring a level of dedication and work ethic - and maturity to employers. They offer a diverse worldview and new ideas.

Both the United Nations and Momentum point out that many refugees, and immigrants to Canada, bring with them pre-existing skills that aren't always recognized in this country.

Approximately 51 per cent of refugees, according to the UNHCR, have apprenticeship, college, or professional level training. An additional 33 per cent have high school educations alongside specific job training.

"Some of these individuals might have some relevant work experience from their home countries, and maybe were even car mechanics and had worked in automotive shops from their country of origin. But when they come to Canada, oftentimes, unfortunately, some of that experience isn't as readily recognized by employers," said Krygier.

One of the ways that Momentum helps these Calgarians is to provide them Canadian-specific training that can be better recognized by employers.

Finding community, and competitive advantages

Aduta now works for TIP Canada, the largest rental and leasing company in the nation for commercial and semi-trailers.

The company had been using similar trade skills programs to find workers but said that Momentum was an easy fit for them.

"It's been a good resource for us to find new, enthusiastic, people that are looking for a career—looking for a hand up," said David Kemlo, the Calgary service manager for TIP Canada.

"In my experience, the more people that we bring into the shop with that sort of goal in mind, the more they support each other, and it makes it makes for very good community," he said.

For Aduta, it means he has been able to make connections and friendships with people from all around the world. Through Momentum, and his employment at TIP Canada, he's worked alongside people from China, Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran, and the Philippines.

That sense of international community has been a real benefit for TIP Canada, said Kemlo.

"That community will reach out to friends that don't work here and encourage them to come on board because they've had such good experiences and such supportive experiences," he said.

"I do believe that makes a big difference for not just us as a company, but the staff that work here."

Yet not every employer has been willing to embrace the skills training program like TIP Canada has. He helps employers understand there's this untapped labour force here of talented people and skilled people.

Candidly, Krygier said that a diverse workforce performs better and provides a better work environment. And there are studies to show that is the case.

"So I think we, we are a pretty good resource for information when it comes to employing our participants, and for employing new Canadians," he said.

It's impossible to miss the smile that crosses Aduta's face, and the sense of pride in his voice when he talks about his experience at Momentum. It helped him get to where he is today.

"Look man, I gotta say, first of all, that was the best decision that I had ever made going to Momentum."