Nine years ago, Aram Hassanlee was forced to start his entire life over in a new country. He never forgot the difficult journey, which is why he wants to help others today.
Back then, Hassanlee was a United Nations refugee who had fled Iran for Toronto, Canada, after facing threats of violence for being gay in a country where he could be executed for identifying as LGBTQ2+.
When he arrived in Toronto to start his new life at age 30, Hassanlee had left his job in Iran at the headquarters of a bank, and said goodbye to his family, unsure if he'd ever see them again.
Hassanlee knew what he had to do to build a new life: learn English, make new friends, and find a job to support himself. Yet during the second day in his new country, Hassanlee was sitting at a TD branch on Church Street in Toronto, Ontario, alongside a social worker who was helping him to open a bank account when his life was about to change.
Hassanlee recalls being completely distracted and feeling both confused and elated to see the colourful Pride flag on display throughout the branch after leaving a workplace in Iran where he could not be open about being gay.
"I was amazed. It was surreal," Hassanlee said. "I told everyone that I wanted to work there someday because in that moment seeing the flag told me everything I needed to know about TD. I had no connections and couldn't speak English but working for the bank became my dream."
Hassanlee realized his dream and is now working as a Senior Compensation Analyst for TD after landing his first job with the bank seven years ago.
So, when Hassanlee had a chance to give back and help other refugees he jumped at the opportunity.
Today, Hassanlee is one of 25 TD employees who have volunteered to act as professional mentors for LGBTQ2+ refugees and those from the community seeking asylum, as part of a pilot initiative the bank is participating in with The Tent Partnership for Refugees .
Launched at the bank at the start of 2021, the pilot initiative aims to give refugees a year-long opportunity to gain important career skills and make workplace connections in their host country after they are matched with professionals who speak their native language.
TD is currently supporting 25 mentees (20 in Toronto and five in the New York/Tri-State Area) where these employees and their mentees meet virtually for a minimum of four sessions to talk about anything from resume building, to preparing for interviews, to goal setting.
Hassanlee (who grew up speaking Farsi) is being paired with a 38-year-old man who also fled Iran on his way to Canada, and said he could really have benefitted from this type of professional mentor when he first arrived.
"I've had such wonderful mentors at the bank and have learned a lot from my colleagues and managers so it feels important to share that knowledge," said Hassanlee, who has already gained some experience working with refugees before signing up as a mentor.
Two years after arriving in Canada and learning English, Hassanlee got his first job with TD. When he was eventually promoted as a Personal Banking Associate, Hassanlee had the opportunity to open new bank accounts for other refugees from the very same small office where he had been helped to open his first TD account.
Helping others find their professional ambitions
Jacquie Supko, an Associate Vice President and small business specialist at TD living in Collingswood, New Jersey, is also helping to mentor newcomers from the LGBTQ2+ community under the pilot initiative, and said that travelling the world with her family as a child gave her some insight into the complex politics, social issues, and other difficulties that many refugees face.
Supko said she was interested in signing up as a mentor as soon as she read about the pilot initiative with The Tent Partnership for Refugees in an email she received from the TD LGBTQ2+ Business Resource Group.
"I was thrilled to see TD doing this and have done a lot of mentoring at work but was really hoping I would get the chance to mentor outside of TD someday," said Supko, who attended a virtual training for mentors for the pilot initiative that took place in February 2020, and was given a guide on a suggested curriculum to go over with her mentee.
"The Tent Partnership for Refugees did a really incredible job giving coaching advice and suggestions on what topics to cover if you don't have experience doing that," said Supko, who has been paired up with a mentee named Jamie. "The mentees are in a different place in their careers which makes this program interesting. Some of the mentees are working for a company and others are starting their own business."
TD is one of 140 major companies which have committed to help The Tent Partnership for Refugees —a non-profit organization which was launched in 2016 to mobilize businesses in several countries to support refugees by integrating them into their host communities.
Supko says she and her mentee, Jamie, are currently trying to identify what industries Jamie may be interested in working in before setting more defined goals.
"I gave Jamie some homework to research different industries they may be interested in and we've talked about any important timelines in their life," said Supko. "Our next conversation is in June."
In addition to quarterly structured meetings following an agenda, Supko and Jamie also communicate via email and text.
Hassanlee said despite having come a long way since first arriving in Canada with no more than two suitcases filled with clothes, family pictures, and his university degree, he hasn't forgotten how difficult it was to carve out a career in a completely new country.
"I'm just hoping my experience will allow others to have an easier path. It's really hard for newcomers and especially refugees to build a meaningful career after they have already been through so much to get here."