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.