Ola Abugharbiyeh will have plenty of reasons to celebrate on June 21.
Not only is the 50-year-old native Palestinian celebrating her graduation from Yorkville University as valedictorian of her Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology (MACP) class, she’ll also be marking the seventh anniversary of her arrival in Canada to build a better life for herself and her family.
“I sit here in awe of the experience that I was so fortunate to have and for this opportunity that Yorkville has allowed me to fulfill,” said the single mom of three.
“When I first started out, everyone was very skeptical. My parents thought I was crazy, but I was pursuing a calling. I don’t call it a dream, because it wasn’t like a dream – it something that was intuitively calling me.”
As a former manager at a television station back in Jerusalem, Abugharbiyeh said she was seeking a fresh start when immigrated to Vancouver as a skilled worker in 2012 after fleeing an abusive arranged marriage with her two daughters and son.
Already armed with three degrees – a Bachelor of Education and Psychology from Al Quds University, a Masters in Democracy and Human Rights from Birzeit University in Palestine, and a Masters of International Cooperation and Development from the University of Pavia in Italy – Abugharbiyeh said she sought out work almost immediately upon her arrival in her new country.
“I started volunteering (at the Immigrant Services Society of BC) the second week after my arrival – something people told me was unprecedented,” she laughed, noting that within two months, she had parlayed that volunteer job into a paid position at one of the largest immigrant-serving agencies in Canada.
“When I saw the posting for an Arabic-speaking settlement worker (at ISS of BC), I applied right away and got the job. Even though I was a newcomer myself, I was a settlement worker helping other newcomers, if you could imagine that.”
It was during Abugharbiyeh’s five years in that position, she said, that her passion for helping others was ignited and her interest in pursuing her MACP at Yorkville first piqued.
“When I started working with newcomers here in Canada, I was exposed to the suffering of humanity for the first time,” she said, explaining that she was raised in a position of privilege in her native Palestine.
“Working with refugees from all over the world opened my eyes and opened my mind – it was such a growth experience for me. I started to see the amount of trauma, the amount of need for mental health work, for clinical counselling, for this kind of support.”
Recognizing the dearth of Arabic-speaking clinical counsellors available to ease that burden for her clients, Abugharbiyeh was compelled to action and started researching her educational options in order to help fill that void.
After considering similar programs at some of B.C.’s biggest universities, she ultimately settled on Yorkville’s online MACP program – a decision she said that, despite being initially overwhelmed by, she now couldn’t be happier about making.
“I think Yorkville attracts the best of the best, because it only attracts people who are so serious, so willing, so burning for more education, for more growth, for helping others, and for helping themselves,” said Abugharbiyeh, who began her online studies at Yorkville in January 2016.
“I can’t speak enough about what I learned, I can’t speak enough about the professors, the students, the faculty, the admin, everyone. Nothing blemished my experience – I have nothing but respect and gratitude for Yorkville.”
Three months shy of finishing up her MACP studies at Yorkville last year, Abugharbiyeh was able to leverage her new credentials into a new career path as the program manager of Options Community Services Society’s Multicultural Family Preservation Program.
There, she’s worked with B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Family Development since January 2018, managing a team of eight counsellors in providing referred families from diverse backgrounds with the support, clinical counselling, interventions, and parent counselling they require.
“We get referrals for families who are struggling with all kinds of barriers – with marital issues and discord, with parenting problems, with miscommunication, with mental issues and addiction, with domestic violence,” she said, noting that her team of counsellors includes two other Yorkville MACP grads that she personally hired.
“The most rewarding thing for me is when I go for a closing meeting, and I see that this family is reunited – when we preserve a family, when we return a child, when we bring peace to a family.”
In addition to her work at Options, Abugharbiyeh has also since opened Ola Abugharbiyeh Counselling – a private practice, where the registered clinical counsellor and certified EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapist provides individual, couples and family counselling and psychotherapy.
On her role at this year’s valedictorian, Abugharbiyeh said she only hopes to empower others the way Yorkville helped empower her to fulfill her true life’s calling.
“We ourselves leave a legacy for others – not to imitate us, but to be empowered by our success stories. When I look at my life, I feel humbled and proud at the same time…I was so, so persistent to make things work, and when I look at my life now, I’m very, very comfortable and happy and fulfilled,” she said, calling her experience at Yorkville “the cherry on the cake.”
“I can’t say enough about the MACP program – it was so in alignment, so in attunement with what I really believe and with what I want to be doing for the rest of my life. I love my job, and I am so grateful for this life that I chose for myself.”