Talent Beyond Boundaries Helps Skilled Refugees Get a New Start

"Why isn’t there a pathway for refugees to move on skilled immigration visas?”


Young Syrian refugee at a camp in Passau, Germany

(Jazzmany / Shutterstock.com)

Refugees want a safe place to live and a way to earn a living, just like the rest of us, but obtaining these basic human needs has not always been easy. That’s why Talent Beyond Boundaries (TBB), an organization dedicated to connecting refugees to international job opportunities so that they can resettle and begin to rebuild their lives, was founded.

The organization has cataloged refugees in Syria and Jordan based on their work history and skills so that companies that are looking to hire skilled labor can find a perfect candidate. The refugees are offered skilled labor visas and can begin new lives; it is a win-win situation.

International law currently recognizes three solutions for the 22.5 million refugees worldwide; voluntary return, local integration, and third-party resettlement. Right now, many refugees are restricted from working in their host countries and have to rely on humanitarian aid.

“We said, ‘This is crazy,'” Mary Louise Cohen, co-founder of Talent Beyond Boundaries told Fast Company.  “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?”

When Cohen and her husband Bruce (both are attorneys) learned about the issues that refugees faced during their fellowships at Harvard, they decided that they would attempt to find a solution. In 2015, they went to Beirut in Lebanon to learn first-hand about the refugee communities and the organizations – the UN and the various NGOs – that help them.

“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,” Cohen said. “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.”

The couple used seed money from their family foundation and partnered with the UNHCR and the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration at the US State Department to launch a program in Jordan and Lebanon. In 2016, they teamed up with an Australian initiative, The Refugee Jobs Marketplace, that was founded by philanthropist John Cameron.

The Cohens then worked with the refugees to create the database that now contains more than 11,000 people living in Jordan and Lebanon who chose to participate. The refugees can document their skills, work experience, educational background, degrees and certificates, and language abilities.

A refugee candidate told the organization that “what Talent Beyond Boundaries is doing is exactly what the world needs. We are smart and educated people and can contribute professionally but are being denied the opportunity because of something we cannot control. I know that if you just give me the chance, I can compete with my skills and maybe even outshine other candidates. But what is happening is most companies when they see where I am from do not want to even take a second to consider me.”

According to the World Economic Forum, there will have to be increases in the mobility of skilled workers to meet projected workforce challenges. TBB's database can contribute to this type of job recruitment.

In pilot programs, the organization is matching a small number of refugees into two countries - Australia and Canada. The Australian government pilot included ten applicants using existing visa pathways. It allows TBB to demonstrate that their refugees have the skills Australia needs and that businesses will sponsor them.

In Canada, TBB is working with federal and provincial governments and with providing companies as a lead partner in the Canadian government-funded Economic Mobility Pathways Project (EMPP). According to TBB: " This unique pilot speaks to Canada's commitment to understanding how the global refugee talent pool fits into Canada's skilled immigration future. Partner provinces and territories in this project are Manitoba, Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, and the Yukon."

TBB is working with companies large and small, like Bonfire, a small tech company in Canada that struggles to find skilled help. The first refugee in the Canadian program was hired by Bonfire. Mohammed Hakmi was forced to flee Syria in 2011 during his second year in university. He moved in with family in Lebanon and with financial help from a nonprofit, he was able to finish his degree.

Hakmi saw a Facebook add for Talent Beyond Boundaries and decided to apply.  He took English lessons via Skype, and the nonprofit helped him prepare a western style resume and connected him to a lawyer for his visa paperwork. Bonfire offered him a job in 2018. “When the crisis started, all my dreams were destroyed,” he told Fast Company. “My dreams are relaunched now.” He still hopes that someday he can return to Syria.

Another refugee, Tarek, moved to Australia in January. TBB expects 20 people to be placed in jobs through the pilot program this year. There are hopes to expand the programs for 50 additional people, but there are so many people who need help.  

“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,” Hakmi said. “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.”

TBB hopes that after initial successes, the organization can expand to work with refugees from other counties and that they can work with the UN to develop an official framework to open new pathways for resettlement. Cohen is hopeful that other organizations will use TBB's model and that more refugees will be able to start new lives in safe places.