Opening doors for talented refugees
When tech entrepreneur and philanthropist John Cameron met a young Kurdish refugee who was working with Amnesty International it was a light bulb moment.
“At a dinner hosted by Amnesty, I met a young man who was working with the organisation on the Kurdistan border and it blew my mind. It completely challenged my preconceptions about who refugees are,” John said.
“This young man was eloquent, courageous and smart and it got me thinking: ‘Why can’t more refugees get out from the dire situations they find themselves in based on the international jobs market’?” he said.
The result was Talent Beyond Boundaries (TBB), an international not-for-profit organisation that works to open skilled migration pathways for refugees; and that benefit the individuals and their families as well as communities and economies.
Seven years after its inception, TBB is now supporting refugees in 17 countries, including Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Iran, Iraq, Burma, Venezuela and Sudan.
It has staff based in Australia, the US, UK, Canada, Mexico, Thailand, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia; and the organisation has placed candidates with employers in the US, Canada, the UK and Australia.
About 70,000 skilled people have registered with TBB’s ‘talent catalogue’ database, which collects information on candidates’ skills, qualifications and experience.
John says his organisation was born of need.
“TBB is unique in the world. There was, and is, nothing else that connects refugees with employers internationally,” John said.
“There are local in-country organisations that do great work connecting refugees with employment and that’s where the idea came from.”
“We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel but we thought ‘let’s apply this internationally’. So, we set about working out how to do that.”
With the current unprecedented global displacement crisis, TBB is an organisation whose time has come.
Currently, a record 110 million people are now displaced across the globe thanks to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, conflicts in Syria and Sudan as well as climate-fuelled disasters and crises, the UN refugee agency UNHCR reports.
The number of people forcibly displaced by persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations and environmental crises grew by 21 per cent over 2022.
The global total includes 62.5 million internally displaced people, 35.3 million refugees, 5.4 million asylum seekers and 5.2 million others who are in need of international protection.
TBB has supported 1451 people to find labour mobility pathways and 1,049 to find durable solutions to displacement. More than 400 people have been referred to other organisations and have found durable solutions.
“When refugees arrive it’s not the end of the problem. They face complex issues in settling and finding work and organisations like AMES serve them very well,” John said.
“But, in some ways, they are the lucky ones. They may be struggling to find a job but at least they have made it to Australia and they are not languishing in Beirut or Pakistan.”
“We thought we might be able to find complimentary pathways for refugees to be able to settle in third countries by engaging the private sector to employ refugees.”
“We thought ‘why can’t refugees get out based on the international jobs market?’.
“The ideas was really to match skilled refugees with companies in need of their skills. Employers gain valuable talent and displaced people have a chance to rebuild their careers and lives.”
John sold his international software company Camron FIX in 2006 and set up the not-for-profit Cameron Foundation. Since then he has focused on philanthropy.
“I was used to hiring people internationally and picking up good talent. And talent is always in short supply and you grab it wherever you find it. So this was a space I was aware of,” he said.
“I decided to start out by finding someone, a refugee, I wanted to employ and to try to bring them out to Australia to see what barriers there are. I was thinking whatever those are they don’t make sense.”
“And I reckoned I could put that anomaly to the powers that be,” John said.
He worked with Amnesty International to put a proposal to the then Malcolm Turnbull-led federal government for a scheme to bring skilled refugees to Australia on an alternative employment-based pathway.
The government thought John’s idea had merit and the nascent Refugee Jobs Market Place (RJMP) was launched.
“I reached out to other parts of the refugee sector for advice and joined forces with them. For me it was a steep learning process,” John said.
As part of that process, John connected with a US couple doing similar work. Washington-based Mary-Louise and Bruce Cohen had initially formed TBB with a grant from the US State Department through one of the last acts of the Obama administration.
“They were working on the supply side gathering data on refugees’ skills and qualifications through a data base called the ‘talent catalogue’,” John said.
“I flew to Washington to meet them and I discovered they were having issues with the data base. I saw I could bring my tech skills to bear in fixing the problem so we joined forces and merged our organisations,” he said.
John said navigating migration bureaucracy and politics has been some of the challenges he has faced.
“When we started, we immediately saw that bureaucracy was going to be a challenge. One hidden barrier was passports. You can’t enter a country without a passport. And, if you are Syrian refugee whose passport has expired, you can’t just go back and get a new one,” he said.
But he says TBB’s focus on skilled employment has seen it sidestep the polarising politics of refugee policy.
“Our model makes sense to both those with a humanitarian bent and also to economic hard heads who can see a benefit to the economy,” he said.
“We pitched the idea to Peter Dutton when he was immigration minister but also to Justin Trudeau in Canada and to the conservative government in the UK and pretty much everywhere we got cross party support.
“Importantly, we also got support from the union movement. They have a rational argument on the need to train Australians to take up jobs but, to their credit, they could see the value in our ideas.”
John says there are two human stories that come to mind describing the impact TBB has had.
The first is that of Syrian refugee and computer programmer Tarek Mulla who was the first refugee settled in a third country by TBB. He arrived in Australia 2019 after spending years in limbo in Lebanon.
“Tarek is now thriving in Australia working in senior position in NSW public service,” John said.
“Recently, we had a major tech problem with the talent catalogue and Tarek did the work to fix it for us pro bono.
“This exemplifies his real talent and also his impulse to give back. He has come from a hopeless situation with hope for the future.
“Now he is effectively saying ‘how can I help other people coming behind me’.” John said.
The second story concerns Fadi Chalouhy, once one of the almost 10 million people who are stateless.
He was born in Beirut to a Syrian father and Lebanese mother. But when his father abandoned the family, Fadi’s birth could not be registered.
That left him stateless, known as Fadi X, and ineligible for education. He lived the first 28 years of his life as an illegal alien in Lebanon.
“Against the odds, Fadi got himself and education and came to Australia through TBB. He is now working in a senior position as service improvement manager with NSW Transport,” John said.
“He is now giving back through his advocacy for the Peter McMullin Centre for Statelessness at Melbourne University.
“He’s an eloquent speaker and an extraordinary person.”
John says the next step for TBB is to leverage the ‘talent catalogue’ to support people resettling through the UNHCR’s regular humanitarian program.
“There are a lot of skilled and qualified refugees who might not find an international employment pathway,” John said.
“We think we could use the catalogue to improve the settlement outcomes of refugees arriving through humanitarian the program.”
“The more you know about someone, the more you can support them. So, we want to work with the service providers and government to find a solution to gap in data and knowledge about arriving refugees.”
“It’s leveraging something we already have. And if we are people into Australia anyway, we might as well set them up for success.” John said.