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.

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.

TalentLift’s Rui Chen appointed advisor to new Law Society of Ontario Access to Innovation project

We are excited to share that Rui Chen, TalentLift’s founding Chief Technology Officer, will serve as an advisor to the Law Society of Ontario’s five-year project to explore innovative approaches to legal services delivery.

The Access to Innovation (“A2I”) project will allow the LSO to assess the potential benefits of novel legaltech services. It is likely to catalyze the creation of new forms of legal services delivery by creating a space for dialogue between service providers and the LSO. Enabled by technology and an adaptive regulatory body, these service providers can enhance access to justice by serving unmet legal needs. Legaltech has the potential to reduce costs, service non-traditional clients, and address new legal needs in a rapidly evolving tech landscape.

As part of this pilot, the A2I advisory committee will work alongside participants and the LSO to create risk-based operation and reporting requirements, while discussing the future regulatory landscape of the legaltech industry. Rui will serve alongside leading experts in the legal, technology and legaltech space to steer the A2I project towards its goals. In addition, the advisory committee will review applications from potential participants, monitor outcomes, and make approval recommendations of service providers who apply to participate.

“The A2I pilot represents a huge step forward. I anticipate it will broaden the legaltech space tremendously, and create quality legal services delivery experiences that will improve access to justice,” said Rui. 

Rui is TalentLift’s Chief Technology Officer, an immigration lawyer, and the founder of an immigration SaaS form-filling platform, Sprintforms. He is also the technical advisor to the Junior Refugee & Immigration Lawyers Network, a peer mentorship association for immigration and refugee law professionals in Canada. 

See the news release on the project for a full list of advisory committee members.

TalentLift, the first organization of our kind registered as a Civil Society Organization with the LSO, is part of Canada’s growing legaltech ecosystem. We advance access to job and skilled immigration opportunities for talented candidates living in refugee circumstances globally. We’re eager to see the ecosystem grow and do our part to embed equity of access in tech-based legal services.

To read more about the A2I pilot project:

To get involved with TalentLift:

Decoding tech recruiting for international talent

The culture surrounding tech recruiting can be mystifying when first experienced. Why does one resume generate many calls from recruiters, while another with similar experience languishes? How do you answer questions like, “Tell me about a time a project failed?” And how are you supposed to code on a (now virtual) whiteboard when someone is watching you?

If this culture is challenging for candidates in North America, even with coaching from their schools and private courses, it can seem impenetrable to those with tech experience in other contexts. These global candidates have skills that are desperately needed in the tech sector, but employers may not recognize their potential across these cultural differences. 

To bridge this divide, peers in tech came together last week to illuminate the hiring process and tackle some of the barriers that can unintentionally disadvantage talented applicants living in refugee circumstances. Twenty-five volunteers from Google, in locations including Waterloo, San Francisco, London, and Munich, connected with twenty-one software developers living displaced in Jordan and Lebanon. This event was hosted as part of GoogleServe, a month-long employee volunteering push, and powered by three non-profit partners working with talented refugees: TalentLift, Windmill Microlending, and Talent Beyond Boundaries.

The idea for the exchange grew from a major opportunity: Skilled visa pathways in Canada are increasingly open to applicants in refugee circumstances under a government pilot called the Economic Mobility Pathways Project, facilitated by non-profits like TalentLift that connect companies facing skills shortages to displaced talent worldwide. Canada is targeting 500 principal applicants and their families moving on skilled visas from displacement over two years. Mohammed at Bonfire and Omar at Shopify are just a few of the brilliant newcomers supported into our teams and communities under this pilot.

The challenge for these candidates is they often have little experience with the style of interviews that are common for Canadian tech employers. When it comes to tech recruiting, few companies do it at a larger scale than Google. Many “Googlers” have experience from both sides of the table, as candidates and interviewers. From that deep experience, volunteers offered tips and techniques and engaged in practice interviews with candidates. In return, they formed connections and gained insight into the experience of their peers coming from contexts that often present challenges such as unstable networks, time constraints, and countless other pressures on their wellbeing that come with living as a refugee.

Here are some of the tips from Googlers supporting their peers in displacement: 

CVs
  • Clean, simple, consistent, bullet-pointed: Bullet points help make your CV more legible.
  • Action words & metrics: Start each bullet point with an action verb (e.g., created, designed, improved) and include metrics to highlight the impact you had in each experience on your resume.
  • Review the minimum & preferred qualifications: Call out applicable skills that match the minimum and preferred qualifications listed for the position to which you’re applying.
  • Experience & projects: Recruiters need to see experience with programming languages and frameworks. This can come in many forms. A “Projects” section is a great way to speak to your experience, especially if you don’t yet have a lot of work experience. 
Technical interviewing
  • Know the types of questions to expect:
    • Algorithms – can you figure out a solution, efficiently?
    • Coding – can you write working, readable code?
    • Systems design – can you reason about how to design a system, ask questions to gather the requirements, weigh design tradeoffs, etc.?
  • Practice, practice, practice. Practice coding interview questions from sources like: leetcode.com. Do practice interviews to work on your communication. 
  • During the interview, ask for clarifications. Don’t jump immediately into coding.
  • Make sure the interviewer understands your idea. Speak while coding and explain your solution. Think out loud.
  • Try to test your solution without being asked. Refine as you go. Scan for bugs in your code. 
  • Don’t panic if you don’t know the answer, try to come up with the best solution you can. Be honest. If you’re stuck, ask for hints. 
  • Be confident. You can be nervous about the interview itself, but be confident in who you are and your skills.

What’s next?

The hiring process can also keep displaced talent out by unintentional design. There’s lots more that can be done to deconstruct, understand, and redesign tech hiring to include the immense talent in displacement. 

Pioneering companies in Canada have formed the Tech Talent Welcome Council to support hiring from this talent pool. We’ll be sharing innovations and good practice as our community grows. 

Ways to get involved: