Creative solutions for refugees, filling a country’s labor gaps

Nagham Abu Issa was working as an executive assistant in a cement factory in Damascus when the civil war started in Syria. Her family fled to Lebanon. She is a refugee, but she is also a valuable employee, with a degree from Damascus University in English literature and has studied human resources. Now she hopes to take that savvy to Canada, not through resettlement but to fill the country’s labor gaps.

She has interviewed with Talent Beyond Boundaries (TBB), an international NGO that has started pilots in Canada and Australia to match a small number of refugees based in Lebanon and Jordan with employment opportunities abroad. The experiment is aiming high: to forge a new pathway for refugees to be recognized for what they can bring to a country, not for the state of the countries they were forced to leave. In so doing, TBB hopes to shift attitudes about refugees among Western nations and their immigration systems, some of which are under assault by the rise of populism and nativism. Bruce Cohen, co-founder of TBB and former chief counsel and staff director for the US Senate Judiciary Committee, created a searchable database for displaced jobseekers in Lebanon and Jordan that today holds more than 11,000 resumes. “It is really getting rid of this image of refugees as unskilled, poor, pitiful.”

In Canada jobs are plentiful. The government recently announced it will take in 350,000 immigrants in 2021, or 40,000 more than it expects to admit this year. Canadian employers have also expressed interest in hiring refugees. The TBB program works with federal and provincial governments in Canada on visas and connects employers to refugee talent. It helps businesses overcome legal barriers refugees face that traditional economic migrants would not, such as a lack of passports or access to education records.

Heather Segal, founder of Segal Immigration Law in Toronto, is working pro-bono with TBB because she says too many skilled refugees stagnate while nations like Canada face labor shortages. “Why are we obviating a group of educated, skilled people because their country fell apart?” she says. “There is a gap here that needs to be addressed…. We need creative solutions for the refugee system in the 21st century.”

In the United States, the Tent Partnership for Refugees works with businesses to facilitate refugee hires, both in countries to which they first flee and where they are ultimately resettled. Tent Partnership’s leaders argue that it is not just the right thing to do, it makes both strategic and business sense. A report released by Tent and the Fiscal Policy Institute in May, for example, showed higher retention rates and resilience among the refugee workforce in the US market.

[Christian Science Monitor]

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