In a modest rental flat in the Lebanese city of Zahlé, overlooking a fine field of tomato plants and beyond that the Bekaa Valley, Syrian refugee Anas Nabulsi and his wife, Marah, are fussing over their newborn baby.
The days here have already turned hot and humid, but six-week-old Mahmoud is still cozied up in a sleeping bag with the words “Happy Winter” embroidered across it.
Maybe it’s a coincidence. Or maybe it’s a little subliminal messaging for the baby. Because if all goes according to plan, Mahmoud and his parents will be moving to Canada, not as refugees but as permanent residents, by end of the summer.
“To be honest, even before our [country’s] crisis, it’s my dream to move to Canada,” said Nabulsi, who fled Syria with his parents and siblings in 2013, in part, he said, because he could no longer avoid being conscripted into the army.
“Nobody thought [moving to Canada] would happen like this. But originally it’s my dream.”
The dream turning into reality comes courtesy of a new initiative from a non-governmental organization called Talent Beyond Boundaries (TBB) that matches skilled refugees with employers and firms willing to hire and sponsor workers from abroad.
“We call it the talent catalogue,” Noura Ismail, TBB’s Lebanon co-ordinator, said at the aid agency’s Beirut office.
“We have over 200 professions represented: thousands of doctors, engineers, nurses, IT professionals. It’s incredibly impressive.”
Another way out of camps
The NGO was founded four years ago in the United States by two lawyers interested in the role labour mobility could play in offering individuals another way out of the camps so many refugees seem destined to remain in after fleeing conflict and persecution.
They began, said Ismail, by spreading the word among the refugee populations in Lebanon and Jordan, eventually creating a database of more than 10,000 resumes from skilled individuals.
“Really, before we had done that, there had been very little discussion and research on the professional backgrounds of refugees,” said Ismail.
“There was kind of this assumption that they’re uneducated and have zero use to society, which we proved through that talent catalogue is just absolutely incorrect.”
TBB is partnered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and has begun working with governments in countries such as Canada and Australia, both of which have launched formal pilot projects.
Canada’s is co-sponsored by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) and was launched on April 1, 2018.
“Canada is known for its leadership in developing innovative programs that support refugees seeking protection and a chance to rebuild their lives,” Mathieu Genest, spokesperson for Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, said via email.
The Economic Mobility Pathway Project is facilitated in part by a $114,000 grant from IRCC and is looking at whether skilled refugees in the Middle East and Kenya can immigrate to Canada via existing economic programs.
There has been some concern in aid circles that the overall idea could promote a kind of hierarchy within the refugee community wherein more educated classes could be offered more opportunities.
But according to the UNHCR’s most recent figures, less than seven per cent of refugees in need of resettlement were actually placed last year.
Advocates say that overall immigration tends to come from the economic stream rather than through any other route such as seeking asylum or through special circumstances, and that TBB is about finding a way for refugees to compete in it.
“I think any program of solidarity is compatable with refugees’ aspirations and needs,” said Mireille Girard, the representative for the UNHCR in Lebanon.
Nabulsi is only the second candidate to be placed in Canada by the TBB project.
As a tool and die maker, he has a very particular skill set. His resume was spotted in the talent database by the president of a tool manufacturing company in Niagara Falls, Ont., who flew to Lebanon to interview Nabulsi.
“I was very happy. He brought some blueprints and asked me specialist questions.”
Nabulsi was offered — and accepted — a job as a tool and die maker.
Nabulsi left his village on the outskirts of Damascus a month shy of graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering.
He and Marah married in 2017 and have been living with his parents in the Zahlé flat. Not affected by the threat of conscription, Marah returned to Damascus to give birth so her son would have official papers, including a birth certificate, identification card and registration on her passport, which are difficult to obtain in Lebanon.
‘Worse and worse every day’
Life has become increasingly difficult for Syrians living in Lebanon, creaking under the strain of about one million registered refugees, who have been arriving there since the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011. They stopped being registered in 2015.
“It becomes worse and worse every day, actually,” said Nabulsi, who has found part-time work with Lebanese employers still willing to hire Syrians.
It felt safe when they first arrived, he said, “but then everything changed.”
Hostility toward refugees has been on the rise in Lebanon, where some accuse them of stealing jobs, driving wages down and rents up.
The country’s foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, has been accused of stirring up xenophobia.
He’s suggested Syrian refugees are staying in Lebanon for economic gain and his supporters have protested against Lebanese businesses for hiring Syrians.
The shift in mood has perhaps made it easier for Nabulsi’s parents as the young couple prepare to move so far away, studying English and reading about Canada online whenever they get a spare moment.
“When he goes there, the future is bright,” said his father, Mahmoud Nabulsi. “He knows what is going to happen. There is no kind of surprises. Here in the Middle East, you don’t know anything.”
“I love that he will take his chance,” said his mother, Huda Nabulsi, who describes a little boy growing up who could draw like Picasso and fix anything broken in the house. “He deserves it.”
For TBB, the hope is that Canadian businesses might take to the idea in the same way Canadians offering to sponsor Syrians at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe did back in 2015 and 2016.
For Mahmoud’s parents, the hope is simply for a peaceful life and a better future.
‘I like cold weather’
The baby has just had his medical test, paving the way for his visa to be issued, the final step in the family’s move to Canada.
“In the beginning, it’s going to be difficult until we get used to the country, meet some people, have some friends,” said Marah, who also studied engineering and has a degree she’d like to make use of one day.
“I don’t feel nervous,” she said with a smile. “I like cold weather.”
“Some people think we [are] going go to a paradise,” said Nabulsi. “It’s not a paradise. I have to start from zero.
“But the most important thing is the job. And it’s a good job. I want to contribute something to Canada. I want to make something, to be thankful.”