From War-Torn Land to Empowering Canadian Newcomers’ Lives: A Refugee’s Journey of Hope and Giving Back This is the incredible life story of someone who has overcome unimaginable challenges to become a beacon of hope and support for others. Meet Thary Phy, who with determination and resilience, escaped war-torn Cambodia as a refugee, faced adversity as an immigrant in Canada, and is now dedicated to assisting newcomers to Canada in their journey toward a better life. Join us as we explore Thary’s transformative journey and unwavering commitment to giving back.

A Life Defined by Struggle and Hope

“Whenever I turn on the tap now, I just remember what it was like during the war. We would have to travel miles to get water, which was completely contaminated. The animals bathed in it, but people still had to drink it.”

During the war, Thary’s family was divided. Her father resided in a farming area, while her mother worked in the rice fields for twelve-hour days. They sustained their energy on a bowl of congee soup every day. As a result of the war, the lives of 3 million people were lost, including that of her older sister, due to malnutrition.

The driving force behind her parents’ perseverance was the hope they clung to for a better life where their children could have access to education. When Thary was eight years old, her family fled Cambodia on a small fishing boat late at night to Thailand. When they arrived in the new country, they sought shelter in a temple as they were undocumented refugees. She recalls her family couldn't speak Cambodian, at the risk of exposing their undocumented status, so they learned Thai. Eventually, her family met a French priest who connected them to a refugee camp.

Adapting to a New Life in Canada: A Journey of Empathy and Compassion

Before the war, Thary’s father was a banker, but when they arrived in Canada in the 1980s, it was difficult for her parents to find work. There weren’t many settlement organizations in her area at the time that could aid her parents in obtaining employment, so her father first secured a job at the Holy Sepulchre cemetery. Eventually, Thary’s parents were both hired at the Schools Sisters of Notre Dame. As their lives began to gain traction in the new country, unforeseen news came their way. Two years after her family began creating a settled life in Canada, Thary’s father passed away from a heart attack. Suddenly, her mother became a single parent of two young daughters, ages six and ten, in a foreign country with no family or relative support. While her mother continued to work at the Schools Sisters of Notre Dame to provide for her family, the retired nuns would teach her English. Gradually, Thary’s mother learned the language.

Embracing Education in Canada

During the war, Thary was unable to go to school in Cambodia; as a result, she could not learn how to read or write in her native language. Nevertheless, her parents continuously instilled in her the value of education. She recalls her parents asserting, “Education belongs to you, and no one can ever take it away from you.”

It was not until she arrived in Canada and her family received sponsorship from Holy Rosary Church in Burlington that she could enroll and attend elementary school. She, along with her younger sister, received additional support from their teachers to help them learn the English language. Years later, when Thary graduated from McMaster University, she knew she wanted to aid newcomers with similar backgrounds and experiences.

Supporting Newcomers in Canada: The Immigrants Working Centre

It is the kindness of those who have helped Thary and her family which drives her passion for working with newcomers in Canada and motivates her to give back to her community. When her family arrived in Canada, there weren't many displaced people or refugees, nor were there settlement organizations to help newcomers. Her parents navigated moving to Canada largely on their own, combined with the support of their sponsor, the Holy Rosary Church. The Church assisted her parents in obtaining their jobs, taught them the English language, and even aided them with their taxes. Nowadays, organizations like the Immigrants Working Centre (IWC), where Thary works as an Employment Counsellor, offer Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) classes, employment services, and settlement services. These are resources that Thary’s family didn't have the privilege of accessing as an immigrant herself back then.

Thary says her mother’s advice on the importance of finding your purpose in life and the value of making a difference in others’ lives has inspired her personal mission to support newcomers in Canada. She expresses, “At the end of the day, the legacy you leave behind is not your job title or your wealth.” She believes that our challenges and setbacks in life shape us into who we are and that we should give back to others based on these experiences.

Turning Trauma into Empowerment: The ICT Boost Initiative

In Canada, the opportunity to create a better future is open to everybody, Thary says, but that opportunity was not available in the country she came from. The Immigrants Working Centre has been collaborating with Lighthouse Labs and McMaster Continuing Education to share the ICT Boost initiative, an impact initiative led by Lighthouse Labs funded in part by the Government of Canada’s Sectoral Workforce Solutions Program. The initiative is a fully funded training opportunity for equity-deserving groups, such as newcomers or people who have been granted refugee status in Canada, to reskill into a tech career.

When newcomers at the Immigrants Working Centre discovered the Cyber Security bootcamp, they were amazed at the training opportunity that came at no cost to them, something they seldom hear of. Thary shares her experience meeting a single mother of four who holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Jordan. She says her dream was to enroll in a program at McMaster University. When Thary shared the ICT Boost Initiative with her, she left IWC’s office feeling excited and hopeful about her future. Many newcomers face financial barriers to pursuing educational programs to improve their quality of life and economic situation, Thary expresses, but the ICT Boost Initiative gives them hope for a better future.

When asked how Thary believes the ICT Boost Initiative would impact individuals, she states that this Initiative provides refugees, immigrants, and visible minorities, among other equity-deserving groups, the opportunity to enhance their skill set and make them more marketable in the tech workforce. Among those enrolled under the ICT Boost Initiative offered by McMaster Continuing Education and Lighthouse Labs, 36% of students are newcomers. Thary adds, by completing the Cyber Security Program at Lighthouse Labs and McMaster Continuing Education, newcomers will be able to obtain professional jobs in the IT field and improve the quality of their lives and that of their family members.

In the future, Thary hopes to see more programs for newcomers and minority groups in the community offered by local post-secondary institutions in diverse occupational fields, similar to the ICT Boost Initiative. She expresses that having programs like the ICT Boost Initiative allows this population to upgrade their skill set to enter the labour market faster and ensure better socio-economic integration.

Final Remarks

The journey of Thary is a testament to the human spirit's resilience and the transformative power of hope and empathy. From escaping war and surviving as a refugee to becoming a source of inspiration for others, Thary has turned her challenges into opportunities to give back and make a difference in her community. Her story serves as a reminder that no matter the hardships one faces, the capacity to support and uplift others is a profound way to leave a lasting legacy.

The ICT Boost Initiative allows people of equity-deserving groups the opportunity to build their tech careers in Canada with no prior experience through Lighthouse Labs’ programs. While McMaster Continuing Education and Lighthouse Labs’ Cyber Security Program is now full and no longer accepting applications to the fully funded program, Lighthouse Labs continues to make tech-enabled change a source of opportunity for all by offering a range of funding options to help students finance their learning journey. Read about how you can finance your career transition to tech in the Financial Guide here. For more information on programs and services available to newcomers in Canada, visit the Immigrants Working Centre’s website. To learn more about tech and data courses offered by McMaster Continuing Education, go to If you are motivated to transform your future and pursue a career in tech, apply now to a Lighthouse Labs program to launch your career today.

Fully Funded Reskilling opportunities offered as part of the ICT Boost Initiative. Funded in part by the Government of Canada’s Sectoral Workforce Solutions Program.