Dikran Tourosian knows first hand how finding a first job can be an uphill battle for newcomers, refugees or not.

The former Syrian asylum seeker arrived in Toronto in 2001 and got his first job selling luggage at an uncle’s store in Woodbine Mall. From there, he moved on to work in the cafeteria of the Armenian Community Centre while doing retail and office cleaning jobs.

It’s all about getting a first job and building a social network, says the 44-year-old Toronto man, who has sponsored 40 compatriots under the private refugee sponsorship program — three more families are still waiting to have their applications processed.

Tourosian has hired 15 of the sponsored Syrian newcomers at Lara’s Restaurant, the mom-and-pop business he, his wife, Ani, and mother-in-law, Lena Adourian, jointly opened on Consumers Rd. in Scarborough more than three years ago.

“They don’t have any restaurant experience, but have to start somewhere. All they need is a leg up. Any Canadian employer, big or small, can help,” he said. “I was in that boat before. I came here with little help. Here we can ease them into integration, then one day they can move on and find their original career.”

Ayda Melkinian, 57, and her family had a very comfortable life in Aleppo until the day the civil war started and two bombs decimated her husband’s photography studio. Her family then joined the millions of Syrians fleeing their homes — and later arrived in Lebanon.

“It was a little bit safer in Lebanon, but life was very hard and we faced a lot of restrictions. Employers were not paying. Landlords charged more renting to Syrians. It’s not like Toronto, which gives support to us,” said the mother of two sons and five daughters.

Melkinian, who was a housewife before, now works as a cook at Lara’s kitchen because she doesn’t speak any English but uses her culinary skills in making homemade Middle Eastern and Mediterranean delicacies such as kebbe, a traditional spiced meatball, humus and falafels.

Both her daughter, Ani Jaderian, 35, and son, Hagop Tchaderian, 28, also work at the restaurant, as part-time servers, so they can attend English classes after work.

Jaderian, a former kindergarten teacher, worked in a boutique selling clothes in Lebanon while Tchaderian made a living at a jewelry store. Neither had worked in the food industry until now.

“We learned English but not very well and we were shy to speak the language. Here at the restaurant, people are encouraging us than laughing at us when we make a mistake,” said Tchaderian, who was trained as a jewelry maker.

“We listen and practise English when serving patrons. It is different from learning English in the classroom. We learn by practising and interacting with Canadians.”

His sister said she would like to go back to school to become a teacher after the family settles and when her English improves.

“We try to make plans in life, but you never know where life is going to take you. Three years ago, I didn’t know my family was going to be in Toronto. I didn’t know I would be working at a restaurant,” said Jaderian, a mother of two.

“But we are very happy to be in Canada. We are touched by the kindness of Canadians. Yes, we miss our home in Syria, but we don’t feel completely lonely because we have found a new family.”