This Syrian IT worker was stuck in limbo in Lebanon. Now he works at Shopify — thanks to a Canadian pilot program for skilled refugees

Looks like a success story for this approach even if numbers are relatively small:

With years of experience in IT and surveillance systems, Omar Taha could easily transfer his skills and knowledge anywhere if an employer would give him a chance.

But being a refugee in Lebanon, the Syrian man didn’t know where to start to find an international employer to sponsor him to another country, let alone have the money and proper documentation such as university transcripts for relocation.

Then a fellow Syrian refugee told him about the recruitment drive by Talent Beyond Boundaries, a global non-profit organization that matches skilled refugees with employers around the world in need of their skills.

“It was in October 2018 when I contacted them. Honestly, I thought my chances of getting a job through them was one in a million,” said Taha, who has a master’s degree in computer engineering and years of work experience in IT and system operations in Syria and Lebanon.

“Then they reached out to me in 2019 and told me there’s this job opportunity with a company called Shopify in Canada and asked if I would be interested. And I was like, ‘Hell, yeah!’”

The 31-year-old man finally ended a life in limbo in January when he and his accountant wife, Roula Dannoura, arrived in Hamilton as permanent residents — among 18 former refugees (plus 27 family members) who came under Ottawa’s pilot program to resettle refugees here based on Canada’s labour market needs.

“A lot of the refugees I know in Lebanon have all sorts of skills and knowledge. But we don’t know how, when or where to start,” said Taha, who now works as a support adviser for Shopify, a multinational e-commerce company headquartered in Ottawa.

“I always dreamed of going to Europe or Canada or the U.S. to work there. But it’s very, very hard. How would I go through the process? Why would an international company be interested in someone who was a refugee in Lebanon and didn’t have any Canadian experience?”

With the resounding success of the pilot, Ottawa has expanded the program to recruit up to 500 skilled refugees from around the world.

“We have on a daily basis employers across different sectors now reaching out to us. We’re seeing a significant increase in the private sector engagement,” said Patrick O’Leary, Talent Beyond Boundaries’s Canada director.

“So it’s no longer a proof of concept. And this is really being seen as truly an untapped talent pool in Canada and around the world.”

Since its inception in 2016, the organization has vetted and developed skill profiles of refugees. Its international talent pool currently has 32,000 candidates — in backgrounds from engineering to health care and IT among others — including some 350 Afghans who have registered recently.

Over the last three years, through partnerships with different countries, more than 312 refugees, including 141 principal applicants, have resettled based on this model. While Australia has committed to welcoming 100 skilled refugees, the U.K. is set to usher in 205 refugee nurses in the next six months.

“In terms of the current pandemic, the biggest thing that we’re hearing across sectors in Canada is we need skilled workers,” said O’Leary, whose organization will launch a new online platform soon to allow Canadian employers to glean candidates’ professional profiles directly.

“We are providing a solution that hasn’t been on the table before and employers are coming out now.”

Under Canada’s expanded program, candidates with a job offer are waived permanent residence application fees and biometrics fees. They also have their pre-departure medical services and the immigration medical exam covered.

Those without enough initial settlement fund for their move to Canada are eligible for government loans to help with travel and start-up costs. To make the program more appealing to Canadian employers, immigration officials also aim to process 80 per cent of the cases within a standard of six months through a dedicated team.

Glen Haven Manor, a long-term care facility in New Glasgow, N.S., which has recruited talent locally and globally, welcomes the expanded program. It successfully brought two skilled refugees on staff under the original pilot.

“The long-term care sector throughout Nova Scotia and Canada has been chronically understaffed for many years now,” says Janice Jorden, employee relations specialist at Glen Haven Manor.

“Added pressures from the pandemic have escalated this critical need as well as the growing demands from the constantly increasing care levels of residents. For many nursing homes, being in rural Canada compounds the critical nature of this situation.”

One of the most recent additions to her team is Lamis Alhassan, a former Syrian nurse and nursing instructor, who joined the home in July after living in limbo in Lebanon with her husband, Abd Alazeez Alabaas, also a nurse, and two young daughters for six years.

The 31-year-old registered with Talent Beyond Boundaries in 2016 and spent three years upgrading her English to meet the required language standards before she was offered a job by Glen Haven in late 2019. Due to the visa processing disruption caused by COVID-19, her family received their Canadian visas in April.

“My bosses, colleagues and the residents here really welcomed us with open arms,” said Alhassan, who was matched with a co-worker on the same shift so she can be picked up and dropped off for work because the town only has one bus.

“Life is so quiet and peaceful here. I’m so happy that Canada is expanding this program so more refugees can have a better future and use their skills to make a contribution.”

Alhassan said both she and her husband plan to study toward being licensed to practise nursing in Canada once they are settled.

Source: This Syrian IT worker was stuck in limbo in Lebanon. Now he works at Shopify — thanks to a Canadian pilot program for skilled refugees

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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