Rock musician entrepreneurs arrive from refugee circumstances to open their new music school in Canada

There are photos of Ranim with children sitting at keyboards during a group lesson. Another photo shows her with one of her students, both smiling and giving a peace sign. She looks happy and the kids look at home with her. Ranim and Adnan taught music together for eight years at their school in Homs, Syria, that they built. 

The war began in Syria in 2011 but they stayed with their students, and stopped charging money for those badly impacted by war. This was their home, where their son was born, where they created a thriving business and community. When Adnan began to receive threats, they still stayed. 

Adnan is a rock star. He’s a talented guitarist and composer, and made a solo career in parallel to teaching with Ranim. His latest project is an album collaboration with an international network of rock and metal musicians. In Syria during a civil war with outside influences, this close association with Western music became a liability. 

A bomb shattered the school in 2018. They lost everything inside. Then the threats became even more serious. One day, Adnan found a photo of himself online labelled ‘wanted.’ So in 2019, they crossed into Lebanon with their four-year old son where they were safe from bombing but not from threats, which followed them, indirectly, as family members got questioned: Where did they go? Where are they hiding?

They hid in Beirut. For three years, keeping a low profile and no online presence, until this week. 

A visa for entrepreneurs in the arts 

As artists and entrepreneurs, Adnan and Ranim had a visa pathway to Canada, where they have a few close professional contacts that became more like family since they left Syria. 

Canada courts world-class artistic and athletic talent through the federal Self-Employed Persons Program. TalentLift’s Legal Director, Veronica Wilson, connected the dots, realizing they were model applicants. Applicants should, according to the program guidelines, “enrich Canadian culture and sports […] for example, a music teacher destined to a small town can be considered significant at the local level.”

Adnan and Ranim dreamed of reopening their music school in Canada – in Parry Sound, where Adnan’s longtime producer lived alongside her partner, himself a musician retired from the rock group Anvil. 

It was a big dream to keep alive in small apartments in Beirut as the environment shifted around them. Lebanon entered its own crisis, economic and political, that has seen the currency drop in value by 95 per cent since October 2019. After the explosion in the port of Beirut, life got even harder. Adnan and Ranim saw more children in the streets, picking food from garbage and sleeping outside. Neither of them could work in Lebanon legally or for fear of their safety, and their savings disappeared. Their livelihood arrived in money transfers for rent and food from their adoptive family in Parry Sound.

Unlike traditional applicants to an entrepreneurship visa, Adnan and Ranim had no savings to demonstrate start-up capital for their business in Canada. But they had everything else, and donations in lieu of savings. They laid out their business plan for the new Solo Music School in Parry Sound as a hub for kids and young adults to learn music and express themselves – it would be an inclusive space, teaching vocals and multi-instruments, celebrating the diverse sounds of everyone. With their staff costs low, donated musical equipment, and $20,000 raised in donations, their start-up costs would be minimal and covered until revenue from their classes came in. Despite their talent and business plans, the couple’s visa pathway to Canada was more complicated than it should have been. Eventually approved, it was a long road. 

Their story builds the case for expanding efforts to improve access by displaced talent to the full suite of Canada’s skilled visa pathways. Canada has pioneered the Economic Mobility Pathways Pilot (EMPP) to overcome barriers like those faced by Adnan and Ranim, but it’s limited to a selection of programs not including entrepreneurship ones. The proven solutions behind this pilot can extend to all visa pathways, to court entrepreneurial talent from displacement too, where ingenuity and resilience have had to soar. 

The trio arrives in Canada

Their little boy is now seven years old and when he learned their visas were approved his first breathless question was, “I get to go to school?” A video from the airport on the way to Canada shows him jumping up and down on the spot, a big smile breaking out in excitement. A video from much earlier, from their apartment in Beirut, shows him rocking out on a drum set that Adnan fashioned using scrap plastics. He’s a little musician and budding mathematician, and has the coolest hair you can imagine, long braids good for jamming. 

In five years from now – which is possible to see in this country – Adnan and Ranim imagine their school is thriving. It’s a place people are proud to be part of, which links and opens cultures to one another. Kids are learning new skills. Adults too. Maybe there’s a band formed among the students that’s ready to play around the community. 

Their immediate dream is even closer to reach. Adnan said it’s to “live in peace, and free without fear from anything. Like any normal person.”

TalentLift is grateful for the support of our partners at Talent Beyond Boundaries for their longstanding support for the family, at Miles4Migrants for relocating the family to their new home, and at Secular Rescue and the Centre for Inquiry Canada for their remarkable financial and moral support during a long journey. TalentLift is also grateful to a wide group of friends and family for their donations to start up the family and Solo Music School in Parry Sound.

The optimism of skills-based mobility greets UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi in Toronto

Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and Barb Mason, Group Head and Chief Human Resources Officer, Scotiabank.
Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and Barb Mason, Group Head and Chief Human Resources Officer, Scotiabank.

Durid is a Maintenance Technician and he and his spouse are working in a Southern Ontario community where their skills are in high demand, and where their daughter can go to school. Anas is a Software Engineer on a Waterloo-based team that has grown four times in size during the pandemic. Kinaz will soon relocate to British Columbia to join a healthcare employer providing critical in-home care. All three were displaced from their homes and careers due to conflict before getting jobs and pursuing skilled visas to Canada. 

These are stories that fill you with optimism, said Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at a meeting in Toronto with Durid, Anas, Kinaz and three pioneering companies – ApplyBoard, Ice River Sustainable Solutions, and Scotiabank – behind a skills-based solution to displacement.

The scale of displacement today is unprecedented since the end of the Second World War. There were more than 26 million people living as refugees globally in 2021, before the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August and the recent invasion of Ukraine.

Traditional solutions including humanitarian resettlement are essential but inadequate on their own to respond. Additional solutions are needed. Job-backed skilled visa opportunities hold immense promise – including potential to scale. 

Below are highlights from a discussion with High Commissioner Grandi on the promise of this solution. 

A bridge to opportunities

Anas relocated to Canada to join ApplyBoard after the team partnered with TalentLift to find software engineering talent. On his own, when he was living as a refugee in Lebanon, Anas couldn’t get traction in his international job search. It was a challenge getting a foot in the door, and there were other daily problems to face like electricity outages, a plummeting currency, and insecure status in the country. Kinaz faced similar challenges and long working days with little time beyond work and sleep. 

“You don’t have stability in your life that lets you focus on your long-term goals,” Anas said. 

He said the bridge between companies and candidates in displacement needs to widen. Organizations like TalentLift and our partner Talent Beyond Boundaries are part of that important infrastructure.

“I didn’t believe it.” 

When Durid got a call that the manufacturer Ice River Sustainable Solutions wanted to interview him, “I didn’t believe it.” After the interview, when he learned they wanted to hire him, “I still didn’t believe it,” he laughed. As awareness grows among the many thousands of talented people who could use their skills as a pathway out of displacement, more people can start believing it. 

Nearly one million vacancies

There were 915,500 open positions across Canada at the end of 2021. This is the opportunity space for connecting talented candidates in refugee circumstances with the teams and communities that need their skills.

International recruitment is a solution that is not just about workforce needs today but “understanding where the demand is going to be,” said Barb Mason, Group Head and Chief Human Resources Officer, Scotiabank. It’s an investment with enormous payoff for new employees, their families, and the Canadian economy. 

Room to improve: Speed is key

Canada is among a handful of countries pioneering ways to make international recruitment and skilled visas work better for talented people living in refugee circumstances. Equity-based flexibility, like recognizing expired passports and loans instead of savings, is significantly deepening access. But further change is needed to ensure companies can recruit and relocate displaced talent with ease and speed.

The visa timeline remains a challenge, said Jordan Ingster, Senior Legal Advisor with Ice River Sustainable Solutions, which saw demand and operations expand even through the pandemic. The team hired nine trades professionals who were living as refugees and could hire others. 

“We need to make that pathway quick,” said Dan Weber, Senior Director of Innovation and Strategy with ApplyBoard, which recently grew from a team of 400 to 1,600. “We need talent, how can we get it here?”

For that part, TalentLift is here to help. Interested teams can express interest to become part of this impactful hiring solution. 

A discussion with High Commissioner Grandi hosted by Scotiabank in Toronto.
A discussion with High Commissioner Grandi hosted by Scotiabank in Toronto. 

With the support of the Scotiabank ScotiaRISE initiative, TalentLift has built a talent platform for displaced job seekers to self-register, develop job-readiness, and connect to transformative job and relocation opportunities to Canada. Learn more.

Insights from our practice interview volunteers on supporting candidates in refugee circumstances to put their best foot forward

A woman standing in front of a grey background with a lab coat and head scarf, arms crossed, holding a stethoscope.

Job interviews are hard for everyone. Most Canadians tense up just thinking about the mix of preparation, pressure, hope, and uncertainty they entail.

Now, imagine if a job interview could unlock the chance to move yourself and your family from an extremely difficult place to a new home and future in Canada; if this job meant a life-changing relocation. Imagine too that this remote interview will be in your non-native language. Imagine you’re stressed about the regular electricity outages interrupting your call. Imagine your family is listening in because you all live together in a few rooms. Oh, and you’ve never had a formal interview before.

Each week, TalentLift candidates – all talented individuals living as refugees around the world – head into remote interviews with employers across Canada with constraints on their time, preparedness and wellbeing that are difficult to imagine.

Perhaps the best tool we can provide to help them prepare is a connection to a volunteer in Canada who runs through a practice interview. Our volunteers are human resources professionals, or managers and other team members with internal interview experience, who regularly commit their time to helping candidates in refugee circumstances put their best foot forward in a Canadian interview. They spend 30-60 minutes with a candidate in a simulated interview, and then provide verbal and written feedback including tips to improve before the real thing. 

We asked a handful of our volunteers to share reflections on their experiences in these practice interviews with carpenters, nurses, bakers, developers, and other professionals – many of whom have gone on to receive job offers. They shared some incredible insight on the talent, potential, and aspirations of displaced candidates.

Here are some of their insights: 

Interviewers can help build up confidence and comfort

During practice interviews, Praneeta Patil, a human resources professional in Toronto, reminds candidates about their courage and endurance in getting to this point as a way to build their confidence. “It is wonderful to see them gain their confidence throughout the call which is then reflected in little things like their posture and the way they converse,” she said. “Many of the candidates who are otherwise great at their work just require that boost of confidence.”

During the real thing, interviewers can also help put candidates at ease with smiling, small talk and an explanation of the interview (including what the interviewer wants to learn) at the outset. These techniques can help lower stress and encourage comfort with the interviewer.

Interviewers can avoid testing cultural context by being more aware of differences

Shawn Patterson is an engineering manager in Waterloo and has been struck by differences in team structure. Some candidates have worked in companies around the world that are “very traditional in structure, very hierarchical, so they aren’t used to having an opinion on how teams communicate across the company.” In these workplaces, people “take the work and execute on it” while companies more typical of the Canadian tech scene “are very flat in nature where anyone can really bring up any concern and interact with any team.” 

Being mindful of this contextual difference can help hiring managers probe aptitude rather than experience within a specific cultural setting. See a guide on redesigning the tech hiring process to include displaced talent for more on how to test skills like problem-solving instead of cultural context.

Jane Duffy, a human resources professional in Toronto, identified some additional qualities to keep an eye on in this talent pool: “Give pause and reflect on the candidate you are interviewing. They are likely estranged from their home country and living in very challenging circumstances. This makes them strong, resilient and nimble – all wonderful qualities to have in an employee.”

Interviewers can make simple adjustments to account for differences when interviewing displaced candidates

Michelle Arnold, a policy manager in Toronto, suggested a no-surprises approach: “I’d encourage hiring managers to provide as much information about what they’re looking for to the candidates as possible. These candidates are often living in stressful situations and may or may not be familiar with Canadian industry terms and trends – the focus should be on trying to get a sense of their skills and their capacity and willingness to learn.” Unexpected questions that put someone on the spot usually aren’t the best way to understand skills and potential. 

Praneeta emphasized the importance of overcoming communication barriers. In Praneeta’s experience, “English is not their first language. Many of the candidates listen to a question in English, translate it in their minds to their language, think of an answer in their own language and then translate it to English. Please be patient while they answer.” Shawn too advised care with communication: “Make sure your questions are clear and easy to understand so you get the best response possible from the candidate. If you don’t get the answer you are looking for, it can sometimes be language related so try and ask the question again, in different words. This will help give the candidate the best chance to succeed.”

Candidates can follow these recurring tips

Understand the question. Shawn said, “listen to the question carefully, and ask for clarification when needed before answering. Feel free to take the time you need to come up with a good response.”

Explain why you want to work with this team. Michelle advised, “be specific about why you are interested in working for a particular employer and make clear connections between past work experience and the requirements of the job.” This will help demonstrate that you came prepared and that you appreciate ways that this team and company are unique.  

Be confident. Praneeta said candidates “could be hesitant while talking about their work and often undersell themselves and their achievements.” She emphasized that it’s OK to talk proudly about your work. 

Have good eye contact and smile. “Interviews can be nerve-wracking and this is especially true when interviewing for a role in a different country and language,” Jane said. But these small things help people connect and appreciate the human side of each other. 

Learning and personal growth is a two-way street

As much as they teach and support others, volunteers explained that they take away big personal lessons and value too.  

“Every individual I interview has their own story and is fighting to overcome their own unique struggles and I have nothing but respect for them,” Praneeta said. “I was extremely moved by their strength, fierce zest for life and the willingness to strive and overcome.”

“Hearing how excited candidates are to build a life and career for themselves in Canada has been surprisingly meaningful,” Michelle said. “In one of my interviews, the candidate was talking about all the research she’d done on the city that she was applying to work in, from the geographical characteristics, to the population size, to the major industries and it made me so excited and hopeful about the possibility of having someone that passionate about Canada contribute their skills here.”

Michelle added, “it’s also just really wonderful to talk to passionate, interesting people who are embarking on major shifts in their lives.”

Are you interested in volunteering? TalentLift welcomes new volunteers for practice interview sessions with candidates, with an ideal time commitment of one or two practice sessions each month. Please register your interest here: https://www.talentlift.ca/volunteer-signup/

Software engineer from refugee circumstances joins ApplyBoard on Canada’s top work permit for tech talent

Anas arrives in Toronto, his new home city, where he’ll begin working as a software engineer with ApplyBoard. 

When he heard he got the job, Anas felt deep pride in himself. He had worked towards this goal for five years. It was late but he messaged his Dad, who’s still living in Syria. At each milestone, Anas would call his parents almost right away. 

That was in the summer, when ApplyBoard, one of Canada’s tech unicorns, offered him a job as a software engineer in Canada, and Anas’ plane landed in Toronto on December 30. A job and a visa to Canada mean something different to Anas than most people. He didn’t have a home to leave behind in Lebanon, where he was living as a refugee, like more than one million other Syrians.

Anas grew up in the suburbs of the Syrian capital Damascus. He had to leave in 2017. There wasn’t a choice if he wanted to stay out of the military and a civil war he doesn’t support. Military service is mandatory for Syrian men aged 18 to 42. Millions of families have crossed the border and become refugees to escape the decade-long war or serving in it. 

Lebanon shares a land border with Syria and hosts the largest number of refugees relative to its population. It’s also one of the toughest places to get by in. The small country experienced a deepening political and economic crisis in recent years that forced millions of Lebanese and refugees alike into poverty. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) found, in a survey published in September 2021, that nine in ten Syrians living in Lebanon are in extreme poverty, unable to afford food or rent. Electricity outages are frequent and the basics are in shortage as the value of the Lebanese pound keeps falling.

When Anas arrived alone in Lebanon in May 2017, he had a dream of being hired as a software developer by an international company in Europe or North America. That dream kept him focused – and busy – because he didn’t know how to code or speak English. He taught himself both. Anas got hired as a junior developer in Lebanon by Googling how to code and then learned on the job. He moved his way up, and through different companies, improving his exposure to technologies and work styles. 

He never lost sight of his goal. 

In early 2021, TalentLift had just started operating and spoke with ApplyBoard about recruiting talent from within refugee populations. A swift decision came from the first meeting with Martin Basiri, the Waterloo-based CEO and co-founder. ApplyBoard changed the way students around the world access international education opportunities. Since its inception in 2015, ApplyBoard has become the world’s largest online platform for international student recruitment. Guided by the premise that education is a right, not a privilege, the fast-growing team has supported more than 300,000 students to pursue study abroad.

That beautifully parallels with TalentLift’s mission to advance access to global jobs and skilled visas for displaced talent as a solution to their displacement: TalentLift believes opportunity should depend on potential, and not the privilege of a secure immigration status.

“At ApplyBoard, our main mission is tied to helping students achieve access to the best educational opportunities and breaking down long standing barriers in the education world,” said Martin Basiri, CEO and Co-Founder of ApplyBoard. “We can’t wait to see what Anas will do at ApplyBoard and we’re thrilled to have played a small role in his journey. We’re proud to support TalentLift and appreciate all the work they do to find solutions for displaced talent.”

TalentLift offers employers and the candidates they hire in-house recruitment services encompassing talent search, visa application, and settlement coordination. We find talent by working with partners in refugee-hosting regions like Talent Beyond Boundaries (TBB) in the Middle East, HIAS in Latin America, and UNHCR in East Africa and other geographies. And, with early and transformational funding from Scotiabank’s ScotiaRISE initiative, TalentLift built a talent platform where candidates in refugee circumstances anywhere can self-register, a significant new access point to opportunities. Our partners at TBB referred Anas to TalentLift, and soon the ApplyBoard team invited him to interview. 

Like all software engineering candidates, Anas had a multi-step interview with ApplyBoard. There was a first call with a recruiter, two rounds of intensive and synchronous (real-time) technical tests, and a final interview with an engineering manager. 

By the end, ApplyBoard found a new team member. “I cried a lot,” Anas said, when he heard the news that his dream was happening. “I believe there is nothing that’s impossible. We should all believe in ourselves, it’s really just a matter of time.”

Canada’s Global Talent Stream work permits are part of the solution

Landing in Toronto was another achievement that deserved a call to Dad. Tired, masked, giggling with happiness, Anas connected back home by video from Toronto’s Pearson airport. 

A deeply personal achievement is also a milestone in expanding access to Canada’s skilled visas for others like him. Anas arrived on a work permit under the Global Talent Stream, Canada’s fastest visa pathway designed to help tech companies stay competitive and grow by attracting top talent quickly. It’s exceedingly rare for someone living in refugee circumstances to successfully apply for this or any work permit – but it shouldn’t be. 

Applicants to work permits must prove they can leave Canada again, even if they’re applying for permanent residence, by demonstrating proof of ties to another country. Valid passports, valid residence status, bank accounts, and savings are examples of the proof Canada looks for, which are impossible for many refugees to provide. Anas is in the minority who, by fortune, have a valid passport from the home country they left. 

Canada’s pioneering Economic Mobility Pathways Pilot (EMPP) helps candidates like Anas who are hired from displacement by Canadian employers to overcome some of the unfair barriers in an economic immigration application. For example, someone with an expired passport who can’t safely or affordably renew it from their home country is supported by the EMPP. However, the pilot is limited to permanent residence applications which are prohibitive for other reasons, notably lengthy timelines that exceed eight months, making them unworkable for employers with urgent hiring needs. The same flexibility doesn’t apply to faster work permit pathways like the Global Talent Stream.

If Anas had an expired passport, he wouldn’t be here. He reminds us of the talent we can gain if we build better access to all of the skilled visa options available, including those courting the best and brightest. 

“There’s someone inside me who really wants to learn.”

What Anas felt most during his ApplyBoard interviews, more than nerves or stress, was excitement. A lot of the process was new, and that was the exciting part. He had interviewed with other international companies but had never done a ‘systems design’ technical test before. He did his research beforehand, online and by calling a more experienced friend. He was buzzing with ideas about how to approach design challenges by his interview date. 

“I think they could see there’s someone inside me who really wants to learn,” Anas said. His curiosity and energy make you smile, and the way he listens to and appreciates the people around him.

He can’t wait to dive into the technologies used by ApplyBoard and become immersed with new colleagues of this calibre. There’s a team mindset he can already see that is different from what he experienced before, where colleagues don’t hoard knowledge and ideas, but share them and grow together. 

Anas’ first day of work is coming up soon. His Dad might be the first to hear how it goes.

TalentLift is grateful to our partners at Miles4Migrants for supporting Anas’ journey to Canada. Miles4Migrants uses donated frequent flyer miles to help people impacted by war, persecution, or disaster to reach their new home communities.

How hiring teams in Canada can support displaced Afghans


More than 2.6 million Afghans have left the country in search of refuge and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) expects this number to grow in the coming months. Many of those who are in refugee circumstances in neighbouring countries are professionals, tradespeople, recent graduates, or parents, all eager for an opportunity to put their skills to use and contribute in a new home community.

Hiring teams across Canada can be part of the solution by extending job and skilled visa opportunities to talented Afghans and others displaced by conflict or persecution globally.

We and our partners at Lifeline Afghanistan, a non-partisan network of individuals and organizations responding to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, hosted a webinar for hiring teams and other community members to learn how recruitment and relocation from within the displaced talent pool works. 

This unique form of recruitment, supported by the Canadian government and UNHCR through the Economic Mobility Pathways Pilot, is a solution to both skills shortages and displacement. It’s a brilliant way to find talent while helping candidates and their families to relocate from displacement. Skilled immigration is additional and complementary to humanitarian resettlement and is a much-needed mobility option for those who can and want to use their professional skills to relocate.

The webinar recording is available on YouTube: https://youtu.be/SrQC2Ma9QGk  

We urge you to watch and consider these actions: 

  1. If you’re part of a team, start hiring with TalentLift.
  2. If you know Afghans who are displaced outside Afghanistan, job-ready and searching for a mobility solution, invite them to seek a job by joining TalentLift.
  3. If you want to engage another way, join Lifeline Afghanistan efforts to support private sponsorship of refugees.

You can also share the webinar recording with colleagues, friends or family and encourage these actions by others.

With the support of the Scotiabank ScotiaRISE initiative, TalentLift has built a talent platform for displaced job seekers to self-register, develop job-readiness, and connect to transformative job and relocation opportunities to Canada. Learn more

Minister Mendicino announces latest steps to redesign skilled visas for talent in displacement

A family is greeted by new colleagues from Paramount Fine Foods in Toronto. The chef and his family arrived from displacement under Canada’s Economic Mobility Pathways Project.
A family is greeted by new colleagues from Paramount Fine Foods in Toronto. The chef and his family arrived from displacement under Canada’s Economic Mobility Pathways Project.

Canada is redesigning skilled immigration pathways to include talented applicants living in refugee circumstances worldwide. New steps announced today send a signal that as Canada welcomes record numbers of skilled newcomers to grow our companies and communities, this country will deliberately include the immense talent within refugee populations. 

Marco Mendicino, the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, signaled a more inclusive skilled immigration system under the federal pilot Economic Mobility Pathways Project (EMPP), which aims to improve access to Canada’s skilled visas. 

He spoke alongside Mohammed Hakmi, a fullstack developer hired by Bonfire and the first candidate to arrive under the EMPP, Lisa Smith, CEO of Glen Haven Manor, a pioneering long-term care facility that hired 15 nurses living as refugees in Kenya and Lebanon, and Khodor Ramlawi, one of those talented nurses. 

The changes announced by the Minister include:

  • Expedited processing standard for federal permanent residence pathways: This can reduce total processing timelines to somewhere closer to 8-10 months depending on the first application stage, whether through a Provincial Nominee Program, the Atlantic Immigration Pilot, the Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot, or other programs. 
  • Alternative proof of settlement funds: This can overcome one of the main financial barriers, which is the requirement to demonstrate personal savings, typically in a bank account, that can approach $20,000 for a family of three. Refugees often have little or no savings after years in displacement. Enabling the use of loans to meet this requirement would be a much-needed, sustainable solution.
  • A flexible application process: This may refer to the use of scanned documents which can overcome tech, printing, and postage barriers while enabling more efficient paperless workflows. Traditionally, some permanent residence applications have been paper-based and require original documents, signatures and photos.
  • Waiving fees for permanent residence: This can further reduce the costs of skilled immigration that fall to applicants, reducing strain on their finances before arriving in Canada and earning a first paycheque.
  • Valid passport not required: The alternative, use of a single journey travel document (SJTD), enables travel after a Canadian visa is approved without need for a valid passport. Refugees often have expired or no passports, and it can be unsafe or prohibitively expensive to renew or obtain one for immigration purposes. 

Critically, the Minister did not yet signal his intention to extend access to work permits to displaced talent. This change would revolutionize their access, by allowing them to compete far more equitably with talent from other backgrounds. 

Work permits are the single fastest and most relied-upon entry into Canada for skilled workers. But applicants to work permits must demonstrate their ability to leave Canada, effectively shutting out anyone who had to flee their home country and can’t prove strong ties to another home. If displaced talent can’t access work permits, they have to arrive on the extended timelines of permanent residence, rendering them non-competitive for many employers who need the speed and predictability available to other talent. Additionally, they’re excluded from many permanent residence pathways that require or favour applicants with in-Canada work experience.

Bottom line: Canada is building a more inclusive and equitable skilled immigration system designed to attract and retain talent, regardless of circumstance, to power teams and new home communities. This will be a major source of hope for people living displaced who have potential, and now have opportunity. 

We can’t wait to support more teams in Canada to source this incredible talent! 

Work permits can bring this progress to scale. You can learn more about the imperative of full work permit access in a Globe and Mail op-ed by Craig Damian Smith and TalentLift’s Dana Wagner, a follow-up Globe and Mail column by Doug Saunders, and a policy brief released by the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration at Ryerson University. 

Ways to get involved: 

Policy brief on opening Canada’s skilled visas as a solution to displacement in Latin America

A chef arrives with his family in Toronto in 2019 under Canada’s Economic Mobility Pathways Project.

Displacement crises are unfolding across Latin America as people cross borders to seek safety from oppression, violence and environmental disaster. The number of Venezuelans alone who have fled their homes is approaching the scale of displacement caused by the war in Syria. They and others from across Central America are in neighbouring countries, often without work and decent living conditions, or making dangerous onward journeys. More than one million people are expected to seek safety at the American border this year. 

A significant Canadian contribution to this continent’s humanitarian emergency can be further opening skilled visas to talented applicants in displacement.

A policy brief released today co-authored by Craig Damian Smith, a senior research associate with the Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Migration and Integration program at Ryerson University, and I outline a clear and actionable set of policies to support displaced talent in Latin America. The policy brief is the first in a new series launched by the CERC in Migration and Integration

We explain how “Canada’s economic pathways could provide new routes to safety and permanence for refugees in Latin America, enabling them to fill chronic skills shortages across the economy including in lower-wage sectors.”

Recommendations include modifying the “ability to leave” requirement in temporary work permits to enable refugees to access this swift mode of entry and with it, a broader range of jobs and visa pathways; and creating additional permanent residence pathways to fill lower-wage jobs in sectors and locations facing chronic skills shortages, such as agriculture and personal support work in populous provinces. 

The recommendations would require just modest policy change and funding. By taking these steps, “Canada can show its commitment to responsibility-sharing in the region by pioneering open economic pathways to refugees, in a clear signal that the global talent pool includes millions of people displaced in the Americas.”

Further reading: 

The colour came back

Nawar Alkhaleel paints in the morning and only in sunlight when each detail she brings to life is most visible. She begins with the eyes. The face, hair and posture that form a portrait in her mind extend on the page from there. 

Her portraits are women built by colour, and their gaze, when it finds you, is difficult to break.

It took Nawar just one week to finish her first portrait after arriving in Canada in January 2020. She and her family landed in Toronto on an evening so cold that breath floats. It would be a long winter and then a pandemic ahead, but they would experience all that in Toronto, and not in Beirut, where Nawar, her spouse, Hussein, and their son had lived for years as refugees. They lived there, but it wasn’t a home. In Beirut they couldn’t work legally, or send their son to school once he grew from a toddler to a little boy, or afford much more than essentials like food – and paint.

Nawar still painted in Beirut but in fewer, quieter tones to save money on colours.

She knew she would become an artist at age 18 and enrolled in a visual arts program at a university in Homs, the city where she grew up in Syria. Her family are artists too. Her sister and brother paint, and a second brother is a machinist with a talent for Arabic calligraphy. She dreamed of a career of creating and selling her work, and began teaching art to children after university as she got started.

The war ended those plans. Homs faced heavy bombing early in the Syrian civil war and many thousands of its residents had to escape. The city counted some 1.5 million people before the war, roughly the size of Montreal, but photos after years of fighting show open-air ruins that are empty and almost look ancient.

Nawar joined Hussein in Lebanon in 2013. Their families spread out from home too, some in Turkey, others in the Emirates. Today, nearly one million people live as refugees in Lebanon, the largest host country relative to its population, where one in seven people are refugees. Exactly ten years after the start of the civil war, Syrians remain the largest displaced group globally at 6.6 million people.

There are few good options facing refugees in countries of first asylum like Lebanon. Many are forced to work illegally and face discrimination, meagre pay and exploitation. Humanitarian resettlement is nearly impossible for most people to access – less than 1% of the world’s 26 million refugees move to a safe country through resettlement each year – leaving many to turn to irregular and often dangerous journeys in pursuit of a better life.

Nawar and Hussein are part of a small but growing group globally who tried something new by using skilled immigration to leave displacement. Hussein is a talented carpenter and registered his skills and career goals with the global non-profit Talent Beyond Boundaries while living in Lebanon. Through the work of this non-profit, a pioneering employer in Vaughan, and the support of Canadian and Ontario governments and the UNHCR, Hussein interviewed for a job in Canada and got hired. He became one of the first international recruits to relocate to Canada, with Nawar and their son, as a skilled worker and former refugee under Canada’s Economic Mobility Pathways Project

Many thousands can follow as Canada’s recruitment and immigration systems shift to enable people like Hussein and Nawar to use their skills and relocate just like talented people anywhere.

Nawar’s latest painting began with the eyes and grew outwards in layers of colour. This woman’s face is shaped in blue, green, yellow, orange, red, and purple. As if her warmth and character come momentarily to the surface, only when you lock eyes together.

She left some paintings in Beirut that were too large to carry but her collection in Toronto is growing and Nawar wants to exhibit them one day. She can’t pick out a favourite, but among her favourites are women, hands like Hussein’s crafting wood, and nature, a subject she wants to better learn. This could be the place to do it.  

Her wooden easel, built by Hussein, sits in a bright living room. Without rationing paint, and in the sunlight after her son goes to school, Nawar said, “drawing here is more beautiful.”

Nawar Alkhaleel is a Toronto-based artist who specializes in oil painting and handcraft artwork. She is a graduate of the Institute of Arts in Homs, Syria. She relocated to Canada in January 2020 with her partner and young son.

Contact TalentLift to start hiring talented candidates in displacement or to reach Nawar Alkhaleel about her work. See a commissioned painting by Nawar on the cover of the Talent Beyond Boundaries cookbook