Like most tech companies, Bonfire, a small company that makes procurement software in Canada, often struggles with a talent gap that makes it hard to find qualified new employees. It also wanted to do something to help address the refugee crisis. So the company recently turned to a new source for recruiting–an organization that helps connect skilled refugees thousands of miles away with jobs, and visas, in Canada and Australia. The first refugee to come to Canada through the program will arrive in a few weeks to start work as a software developer at Bonfire.
Many Syrian refugees in Lebanon, as one example, are skilled professionals, but are forced to rely on humanitarian aid. “We said, ‘This is crazy,'” says Mary Louise Cohen, cofounder of Talent Beyond Boundaries, the organization that now connects refugees with jobs. “We know that there are talent gaps around the world. There are countries that want skilled people. Why isn’t there a pathway for refugees to move on skilled immigration visas?”
Right now, many of the world’s 25 million-plus refugees are restricted from working in their host countries, no matter what experience they might have. It’s also very difficult to move somewhere else through traditional humanitarian resettlement programs, which help refugees permanently settle elsewhere; fewer than 1% of refugees have this opportunity. The U.S., which previously led the world in refugee resettlement, now accepts far fewer people under Trump. It’s challenging for refugees to apply for skilled visas through current programs, partly because those programs often require documentation–such as passports or bank records–that refugees may not be able to provide. When Cohen, an attorney, learned about the problem along with her husband, Bruce (also an attorney, and the former chief counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee), they decided to try to develop a solution.
In 2015, they went to Beirut. “We started talking to refugees, we started talking to refugee aid organizations, and we started talking to the UN agencies on the ground, including UNHCR, to try to see whether the idea had any traction,” she says. “And we came back from that confirmed that there really were a lot of skilled refugees. Refugees desperately wanted a solution like this. UN agencies didn’t think we were crazy. Instead, they seem to welcome the idea.”
Talent Beyond Boundaries worked with refugees to create a detailed database of the skills of more than 11,000 people in Jordan and Lebanon who wanted to participate. “This data didn’t exist anywhere else,” Cohen says. “UNHCR had information about the last occupation of head of household, but that was it–they couldn’t tell you, if you were an engineer, what kind of systems you’ve worked on, what kind of education you had, where your experience was. And so we built that over the course of a year.”
Both Canada and Australia decided to run pilot programs, and the organization also began working with companies interested in hiring refugees–from small firms like Bonfire to corporations like Accenture. Based on a company’s needs, Talent Beyond Boundaries searches through the database to find potential candidates. In one case, a refugee will fill a role at a tool and die company in a Canadian town where a business owner can’t find new employees. Others will work as nursing aides or engineers.
Mohammed Hakmi, who will work at Bonfire as a software developer, was forced to flee Syria in 2011 during his second year as a university student in Homs. He made it to a relative in Lebanon and hoped to return home, but ended up spending the last several years in exile. Though he was able to find some work–unlike many refugees–he realized that he couldn’t build a future in Lebanon or have any guarantee that he could continue to help support his family members. “There are lots of nights I stay awake wondering what would happen if my boss tells me that he can’t let me continue to work,” he says. The unemployment rate in Lebanon was high even prior to the refugee crisis; now, many of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in the country are either unemployed or working for low wages under the table.
With some financial help from a nonprofit, he finished his degree in Lebanon. In 2016, he saw a Facebook ad for Talent Beyond Boundaries and decided to apply. The organization helped connect him with English lessons via Skype, prepare a Western-style résumé, and practice for interviews. They also connected him with a lawyer for his visa paperwork. Bonfire made him a job offer in 2018; now, after his paperwork has finally been approved, he’s about to move. “When the crisis started, all my dreams were destroyed,” he says. “My dreams are relaunched now.” Ultimately, he hopes to eventually return to work in Syria.
Talent Beyond Boundaries helped another refugee move to Australia in January, and expects to help around 20 people move to Canada from Jordan and Lebanon through the pilot running this year, and perhaps as many as 50 people. At the request of the Canadian government, they’re also beginning to work with refugees in Kenya. The first pilots in Canada and Australia are designed to remove administrative barriers to help thousands of other refugees immigrate in the future. They also hope to begin to bring refugees to other countries, and they’re working with the UN Refugee Agency to develop a framework for alternative pathways for migration that other organizations can also use. “We want people to copy what we’re doing,” says Cohen.
Hakmi says that the need for a program like this is acute. “I know so many refugees here that have the skills, they have education, some of them have degrees, like engineers and doctors, but they don’t have the opportunity to apply the skills and benefit the host communities,” he says. “In Jordan and Lebanon, the life for the refugees is really difficult, and it’s really sad that you can see that a lot of skilled, talented people that are just sitting and thinking about how they can buy bread or food for their families for the next day.”