Syrian refugees Anas Nabulsi and his wife, Marah, gaze across their balcony in east Lebanon's Zahle as rain drizzles down on to blooming cherry blossoms and bare vineyards. This sight of spring will likely be the last the couple will see, as soon they'll be leaving Lebanon for Canada – pending the birth of their first child in May, and the approval of their visas.
Anas, a 34-year-old mechanical engineer from Damascus, has received an offer to work in Toronto at Davert Tools, a company specialising in the engineering and designing of metal tools. While unable to complete his bachelor's degree in Syria due to the war, Anas found employment at a steel company in the country. However, he fled Syria for Lebanon relatively early in 2013, and was able to find work in quality control, overseeing the making of tools and machines.
"I left to escape the military draft," Anas says. "In 2013, the number of refugees seeking work in the Beqaa Valley was not so high, so I was able to find work that fit what I had studied. Now, I freelance. People only hire me when they need me."
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 944,613 Syrian refugees are registered in the country. However, the Lebanese government estimates that up to 1.5 million are residing in the country, due to the number of unregistered, illegal individuals.
Since his arrival in 2013, Anas has not been able to return to his home country, through fear of punishment for having dodged recruitment. Halfway across the world, Bob Collier, president of Davert Tools, was struggling to find an artisan skilled in making the moulds and fixtures he needed to create new tools. "Generally in Canada, there is a shortage of skilled people," Collier tells The National. "In my case, I have two toolmakers who are already over 65 and could retire any day. This is not an unusual situation in Canada. The demographic in most western countries is the same."
Forging new pathways for immigration
American NGO Talent Beyond Boundaries (TBB), which also has branches in Lebanon and Jordan, has long seen the potential in connecting refugees like Anas and employers such as Collier. Since 2016, the small team have worked with governments and employers across the world to pave the way for skilled refugees to find employment and residency abroad.
Noura Ismail, TBB country director in Lebanon, however, clarifies that the NGO is not a recruitment agency. "Achieving very high recruitment numbers is not our goal. We are changing global immigration systems and the individuals we are currently placing into jobs is to demonstrate that our model works for other organisations and individuals to then access," she says.
The first visas for TBB candidates were issued in December last year. Since then, six individuals along with their families have moved to Australia and Canada. Among the first cohort to be relocated is Fadi, who, the organisation says, is the first stateless person to have ever travelled on a skilled worker's visa rather than a humanitarian one. Another candidate, Mohammad Hakmi, now relocated to Canada, met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier this week to discuss his experience with TBB and the importance of opening economic immigration pathways.
While the organisation is building relations with a number of countries, new immigration models with Canada and Australia are the most developed, Ismail says. In both countries, an Economic Mobility Pathways Project (EMPP) is in the works to test if their current systems could adapt to accommodate refugees who may not be able to retrieve the required documents or meet particular requirements due to their current status.
"Opening these alternative pathways is extremely complex," Ismail says. "We have candidates who are in Lebanon, but who can't go back to Syria because they haven't done their military service. These individuals are unable to access papers such as criminal records, which are needed when applying for residency, and this is just one example of a barrier we have faced."
In an email, Remi Lariviere, media relations adviser for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), explains that the EMPP helps Canadian immigration services "understand, formally document and evaluate what a specific population of skilled refugees may face when trying to immigrate to Canada through existing economic programmes". Lariviere adds that the IRCC has facilitated the new EMPP programme with a grant of $114,000 (Dh418,665). "No one has really done this before so we don't have a road map we can follow," Ismail explains. "Governments and employing companies have also not worked to introduce immigration pathways this way. We're breaking new ground."
A new start
For Anas, his introduction to TBB was a pure coincidence. "I saw an advertisement on social media calling for refugees with specialist skills to send in their resume. I didn't think much about it, I didn't think anything would really come of it," he says.
At the time, TBB was beginning to create its Talent Catalogue – an organised database of resumes, exhibiting refugees with specialist skills. Today, more than 10,000 refugees are registered in the catalogue. The top five nationalities are Syrian, Palestinian, Iraqi, Sudanese and Yemeni. The majority of possible candidates come from engineering, healthcare and IT backgrounds.
On TBB's side, vetting candidates is a long and rigorous process done in co-ordination with the UNHCR, Sanctions Target EU and the Office of Foreign Assets Control. In terms of education, tests are administered to gauge proficiency in English, as well as any other languages, if spoken. Anas sent in his resume without much thought, but in the early summer of 2018, he was shocked to hear that a potential employer from Canada was in need of his skills. "Tool and die-making, it's a very specific and unique skill set," Anas says. "Given that I cannot go back to Syria and I can't make much money in Lebanon any more, this was the best option for me and my family."
Collier, who personally travelled to Lebanon and met his potential employee, brought a bag of blueprints with him along with a test to gauge whether or not Anas, among others, could be a good fit. A week later, Anas was accepted to be a new employee at Davert Tools. "My son is very clever," Anas's father Mahmoud says. "I wasn't surprised that he was chosen," he adds, patting his son's back.
While Anas arrived in Lebanon in 2013, his wife Marah, 23, moved less than a year ago after she finished her studies at Damascus University.
Speaking about her new future in Canada, Marah says she is looking forward to "stability". "In Damascus, I grew used to the sounds of bombs and shootings every day. Rockets would hit our university, there were checkpoints everywhere. Daily life went on, but it was not a life to be lived, especially for a child," she says.
Once settled with their newborn baby in Canada, Marah also wishes to seek employment, having graduated top of her class in computer engineering. For Anas, Canada is also a symbol of a new chapter in his life. Expressing his gratitude towards the Canadian government and the help from TBB, he also underscores his deep desire to give back to the country that has given him a "new life".
"I'm proud that my child will grow up in Canada. I am grateful for this opportunity, and I want them to know this," he says.
In preparation for their move, both Anas and Marah have both connected with other Syrians in the Toronto area through Facebook groups that are specifically for Syrian refugees who have just relocated there.
While moving halfway across the world is daunting, they agree that it is the best option for them given the circumstances in Syria.
"I think there is a great need in Canada for these sort of skills," Collier explains. "The main issue right now is the length of time it takes to get the candidate to Canada. If this could improve, then I think we could move many more of these skilled refugees into jobs."