Syrian software developer starts new life as Canadian skilled worker

After eight years in Lebanon, Mohammed Hakmi is the first refugee to arrive in Canada as a skilled worker under an innovative pilot program.

Syrian refugee Mohammed Hakmi, 26, at his new job with Canadian tech company Bonfire Interactive in Kitchener, Ontario.
© UNHCR/Annie Sakkab

Up until a few weeks ago, Mohammed Hakmi was one of the world’s 25 million refugees looking for a solution. Then, the Syrian software developer was given a life-changing opportunity.

Bonfire Interactive, a Canadian tech company in Kitchener, Ontario, recently welcomed Mohammed to their team. Mohammed is already using his IT skills to support the company in meeting its growing needs and helping to fill a shortage of tech workers in the region.

“We’ve got a great candidate who went through the same process other candidates go through, very high technical ability, good communication skill[s], everything you’d expect,” said Bonfire’s CEO Corry Flatt.

Mohammed sees the model as “a two-way benefit” because employers are helping to positively change the lives of refugees and, in return, they profit from their skills and talents.

"Why could we not use this power, the power of refugees?”

This belief in a win-win situation is at the heart of Talent Beyond Boundaries (TBB), an organization that matches employers to refugees who have the skills they need – which is how Bonfire found Mohammed.

In Lebanon and Jordan, TBB has identified over 10,000 Syrian professionals in IT, engineering, trades, accounting and health care. Most of the refugee professionals TBB identifies are unable to work, so their skills go unused.

In 2019, 58 per cent of immigrants will arrive in Canada through one of several economic immigration programs. Many refugees are not able to access these programmes, not because they lack the skills or education, but because of simple barriers like having an expired passport.

The Canadian government created an innovative pilot programme called the Economic Mobility Pathways Project to test the possibility for refugees to immigrate as skilled workers. Mohammed is the project’s first success story.

Canada. Tech company hires Syrian refugee as part of innovative project

Syrian refugee Mohammed Hakmi, 26 (left) at Canadian tech company Bonfire Interactive with CEO Cory Flatt (right).  © UNHCR/Annie Sakkab

“They have knowledge, they have skills, but these skills and knowledge are disabled,” said Mohammed of the thousands of refugee professionals living in Lebanon. “They can make a positive impact on communities. So why could we not use this power, the power of refugees?”

The new Global Compact on Refugees is asking the same question and encouraging countries to go beyond selecting refugees only based on their vulnerability by creating new pathways for them to legally move to a third country. UNHCR and TBB are encouraging Canada and other countries to explore how their economic immigration programs could provide these additional means for refugees to rebuild their lives and careers.

“While these pathways are not a substitute for resettlement, they can complement programmes by facilitating safe and legal entry for refugees to other countries,” said UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Volker Türk.

UNHCR hopes that Mohammed Hakmi’s example will open up further opportunities through economic immigration, connecting skilled refugees overseas with employment needs in Canada. This new project offers renewed hope through an innovative solution for refugees, while Canadian companies and communities at large are enriched by refugees’ talents.