Toronto, Canada

Bridging Refugee Talent and Opportunity

Refugee Career Jumpstart Project (RCJP)

March 7, 2016

A start-up bridges the gap between refugee arrival and employment by shifting talent and career development to the front-end of refugee resettlement.

RCJP_infrastructure-2The lobby of the Toronto Plaza Hotel is congested with strollers, crowds of children, and adults whose duties are parental, professional and volunteer – and sometimes all of the above. It’s a mix of activity and boredom, smiles and sighs. It appears to be a waiting room for over 400 refugees new to Canada from countries bordering Syria.

Down a quiet hall behind the lobby, past one or two kids yet to be chided away, is a meeting room where three to four volunteers are in conversation, speaking Arabic, with a Syrian refugee. Each volunteer has a laptop and a simple form used to build a skills profile with past work experiences as told by the refugees. But these are no simple conversations. The refugees have a new world’s worth of questions. Some have been in Canada for less than one week.

The Refugee Career Jumpstart Project (RCJP) team works patiently through each one-on-one interview. Their aim is to build an individual skills profile for each working-age Syrian refugee and match them to education or employment opportunities; whether it’s a job, a scholarship, a language course, or a host of other employment and career development services in Toronto’s settlement sector. Those who are job-ready get connected with jobs, or with training or education bridging programs. Everyone else gets a basic but personal career map to begin the planning process.

Volunteers of this start-up non-profit are mobile, traveling to Toronto’s four main hotels that are the temporary first homes of many Syrians arriving under Canada’s plan to resettle 25,000 refugees in four months. The volunteers target working-age men and women who are willing and able to enter the labour market, or nearly ready to enter it. The RCJP strategy is to have a career conversation with refugees very soon after arrival with two key objectives: inform people about what’s possible, and dispel rumours about what’s impossible.

Honest and open conversations are the norm because the RCJP founders and ground team are Syrian-Canadians who understand the two worlds that the newcomers are straddling. Some of the questions co-founder Mustafa Alio hears are ones he once had too. Questions like “Is it possible to restart my Syrian career?” or “Will my wife be harassed at work?” or “How much will a construction company pay me?”

A business development graduate, Alio immigrated to Canada on a student visa in 2007 at age 22. His last job in Syria was regional sales manager with the telecommunications giant Syriatel. His first job in Canada was a gig serving shawarma in Toronto’s gritty Entertainment District. Today, he’s back in business development and uses experiences from his early, mostly sleepless, months in Canada to make a point in conversation with Syrian newcomers.

In Syria, meritocracy competes with family and political connections, and some refugees arrive thinking that no network means no upward mobility. RCJP counters that myth quickly. “In Canada, that’s the beautiful thing. As much as you put in, you get back,” Alio said.

In Chaos is Opportunity

RCJP-LogoBefore large numbers of Syrian refugees began arriving in Canada, Alio and co-founder Omar Salaymeh met a Syrian engineer, a recent immigrant who spoke decent English. The man commented that he knew it was impossible to requalify as an engineer in Canada, and he wasn’t planning to do it. Alio and Salaymeh knew otherwise. Salaymeh’s father, for one, was a civil engineer from Syria who went through the steps himself in Canada. They connected the two engineers – and the skeptic is now on his way to requalify.

“You just need someone to navigate it with you. It’s not impossible,” Alio said.

Similar encounters increased as more Syrians arrived in Toronto. With that engineer in mind who had English, resources and connections, and who still almost gave up on his career, Alio, Salaymeh and third co-founder Bassel Ramli, anticipated an even bigger need among refugees for sound career advice. They began networking with settlement agencies and Syrian-Canadian organizations in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and soon discovered that no one was doing what they had in mind. Their hunch was confirmed when they first visited refugees in the hotels. “They had a lot of questions and no one was talking to them,” Alio said.

Early collaboration with the right actors around the city enabled RCJP to step into a connector role between refugees and the local services and opportunities that do not always reach their target. By traveling directly to arrival zones like hotels, RCJP found out they could bridge a gap between arrival and employment. That gap can be big. There is a tendency to see refugees differently than other immigrants, as people who have needs instead of potential. “Refugee talent” is a scarce phrase, but Syrian Canadians know that’s a mistake. Alio’s own family, now refugees, left careers and degrees behind and are now trying to resettle in Canada.

For resettled family and strangers alike, “we wanted to give them hope and support them to find the right opportunity,” Alio said. “We wanted to avoid losing all that good talent. It’s not only a loss for them, it’s a loss for Canada too.”

Early Impact and Growth

Although still in start-up mode, RCJP has evidence that its approach works. In four months, the team met with 250 clients. On busier days, they can see around 20. So far, four clients are working. That number is likely to rise as RCJP works with more than a dozen companies looking to hire.

Part of the RCJP approach is to do something with the data it collects. Put together, individual refugee forms become an invaluable, localized skills profile of a talent pool that is often elusive and improperly tracked. With a good sample, RCJP can talk to companies and service providers about the skill level, education background, language proficiency, and job readiness of their clients. Data plus access to job candidates is a significant value proposition for local employers in need of talent.

RCJP may have more accuracy than the federal government when similar data points are collected, since the team can translate refugees’ competencies into Canadian terms, and catch what sometimes goes unreported. For example, a business owner might report her experience as “restaurant,” when it is more accurate to say “business management in the restaurant industry.”

As a start-up that’s found a niche, scaling plans are in progress. The team is powered by volunteers and recently secured a small pilot grant from the federal government. Sustainability is a mid-term goal, and social enterprise models in other cities are on the table. For now, RCJP is expanding from a focus on government-assisted refugees to privately-sponsored refugees. There is a vision to scale even further, beyond Syrians to refugees of all backgrounds.

Refugee talent from around the world goes underutilized in Canada even through, like Syrians, many are professionals, skilled tradespeople, and job creators. As Alio summed up, “they’re amazingly talented people.” They just need a jumpstart.


Making it Work for You:

  • Build a team with two-way cultural competencies and fluency in the native language of refugees.
  • Rethink the timing and sequencing of existing settlement services for refugees. Although many refugees are willing and ready to work (or plan new careers) soon after arrival, it may take longer to get employers on board.
  • Use data in a way that supports multiple stakeholders: Refugees, employers, and service providers.
  • Partner with employers to fill non-traditional roles. For example, employers as a source of career development information or services.
  • Partner with existing services providers to avoid duplication and instead fill gaps and identify opportunities.
  • Consider strategic partnerships to provide ancillary services that support employment; for example, child care and cultural education.
  • Tailor existing employment services for refugees as a client that is distinct in certain ways from other newcomer groups.

For this Good Idea contact:

Mustafa Alio, Refugee Career Jumpstart Project
Toronto, ON, Canada,
+647 686 6300