For World Refugee Week HRM speaks with two Syrian refugees who, with the help of two programs, have found work within Australia.
Do you have a colleague or employee who has been threatened with a gun or had a miscarriage because of their proximity to a deadly rocket? Some Australians do, because these are just a few of the experiences of refugees who have fled war-torn countries.
Last year HRM explored why hiring refugees is good for business. This year HRM hears directly hears from two people who have secured permanent work through programs designed to help connect refugees to businesses.
The current strife in Syria has been going on since 2011. What began as peaceful protests escalated into an multi-factional civil war after a brutal and internationally decried government backlash.
From the Ghouta chemical attack to the rise of ISIS, the Western Asian country has been ground zero of some of the world’s most horrific events of the past decade. So it’s no wonder so many Syrians have fled and sought asylum in other countries.
The Council on Foreign Relations estimates that there are 6.2 million Syrians displaced within Syria and 5.7 million registered Syrian refugees globally. UNHCR says there are currently 25.4 million refugees in the world, so Syrians make up a sizeable chunk.
Australia itself is currently home to over 34,500 refugees and, considering the amount of displaced people around the world, this number can only be expected to grow.
Allianz and Marwan Eid
Marwan Eid lived in Damascus, Syria. Prior to the war he was an archaeology student who enjoyed camping out under the stars with his friends. Just like us, basic necessities like water, food and electricity were never a concern. The war put an end to all that.
After it started, checkpoints guarded by the government (and sometimes ISIS) became a fact of life, and civilians were required to carry an identification paper on them at all times. Eid says its purpose was to identify whether or not someone is a student, in the military or affiliated with terrorists.
“There was a checkpoint in every two streets either for the government or for ISIS. That was a really weird and bad situation,” Eid told HRM. “They would check our IDs and ask what religion we are – it’s basically the worst interview you will ever have.
“The worst part was not knowing if you’re going to die tomorrow or today.”
One instance was particularly traumatic.
“A soldier asked me to give him my paper to see if I was tricking them, if it was my time to go to the military or if I was from ISIS.”
Eid tried to explain that he was a student but he didn’t have his papers because he accidentally left them at home.
“The soldier said to another one ‘shoot him’.”
Eid pleaded with the soldiers to spare his life. Frightened out of his wits, he again tried to explain that he’d simply forgotten his papers. It was then that the soldiers started laughing at him, and said they were “just playing”.
In Syria, it seems, there’s often little difference between gallows humour and a death threat.
“I have lost a lot of friends and a lot of family members. I was lucky to start a new life.”
Conscription in Syria is complex but basically all male civilians between the ages of 18-42 can be required to fulfil 18-21 months of military service. In order for Eid and his brothers to avoid fighting and possibly dying in a civil war they didn’t want any part of, Eid’s family fled the country for Iraq.
Life there was decent, they once again had access to food, water and shelter – and Eid even had a job in a warehouse – but Iraq was no place for a permanent home. So Eid and his family applied for Australian visas.
Two months after Eid and his family reached Sydney he was contacted by Settlement Services International (SSI). SSI is a not-for-profit organisation that offers a range of services to help settle refugees into Australia, including connecting refugees with potential employers.
The organisation has teamed up with Allianz to create the ‘Allianz Ladder Program’ which offers refugees business skills training, mentoring and innovation workshops to support progression into employment.
Eid was successful in this program. He says Allianz helped him practise English and understand insurance. He held an admin role for one year and his employers were happy. They told him he “smashed the work”. He was given a permanent role as a customer-care consultant and is now on his way to becoming a claims manager.
“When I started working for Allianz, it not only changed my experience and my job field but it’s also changed my personality, because I see that I am not a refugee anymore,” says Eid.
It is clear that Allianz are just as happy, if not more happy, with Eid.
“We saw his potential from the outset,” says Allianz’s chief human resources officer Vicky Drakousis.
“His story and determination to thrive in a new country is an inspiration for corporate Australia to continue building these kinds of programs and initiatives in order for refugees to have access to both education and employment.”
Drakousis says while Allianz has helped Eid feel welcome and supported, he has done just as much for the company.
“[Eid] is a great example of how assistance and opportunity can build a better workplace and community,” she says. “We have also found, due to their drive to make a difference in their new home, our refugee employees go above and beyond to execute the role. This includes driving new ideas and innovation towards success.
“Large corporates like Allianz have enormous potential to create jobs, open access to education and basic services, and deliver innovative solutions – it’s a mutually beneficial partnership.”
HR professionals across any business can follow Allianz’s lead and encourage a more diverse workforce. But the first step is to be open.
“I believe a lot of organisations have a preconceived idea of refugees and have their judgments and apprehensions,” Drakousis says. “Refugees are determined to build a meaningful life in Australia, if provided with meaningful opportunities. Supporting a diverse Australia will not only achieve company goals, but will benefit employees, customers and the community alike.”
Eid’s urges companies is to give refugees an opportunity, just as Allianz gave him one.
“See the person first, have an interview, and after that you can judge if the person is capable of doing the job or not.”
CareerSeekers and Chantal Mousad
Even after a few moments of talking to her, it’s clear Chantal Mousad is a very strong and honest woman. She told HRM she wouldn’t hide her story.
“I want to answer everything – nothing is in the shadows.”
Though her family was all Syrian, Mousad was born in France and lived there for some time until her parents decided to return to their home country and begin a medical practice.
Mousad has a Bachelor of Economics and a Masters of Banking and Insurance from Syria’s Damascus University. She had a successful ten year career in Syria before the war broke out. But after the fighting started, Mousad’s life, like the life of her country, got considerably harder.
“I delivered my twins when I was seven months pregnant because a rocket came over our home,” she says. Her twins did not survive.
When Mousad was offered a job in Iraq, she took it. She became a project manager and oversaw the transfer of her bank’s manual system to an automatic one. She spent a couple of years in Iraq, and had her daughter there, but then her marriage broke down.
She couldn’t stay in Iraq and she couldn’t return to Syria as she says life in both countries “for a single mum is very hard.” She applied for a ‘woman at risk’ visa and moved to Brisbane.
For the first eight months in her strange new home Mousad looked for work in her industry but had no luck.
“I don’t have experience in Australia and sometimes when they hear that I have moved from Syria, to Iraq then to Australia, they can’t accept it.”
While she kept looking for a job, she studied at TAFE and encouraged her daughter (who already spoke three languages) to learn English as well.
Childcare was expensive so she worked 12-hour shifts in convenience stores, restaurants and a warehouse. But the real challenge was to provide for her daughter emotionally.
“I am a single mum, I have no helping hands here,” Mousad says.
“When refugee children move to Australia it’s a different culture, different place and different food. The first year my daughter was not okay. Every year was a different city and different friends – she was upset and confused.”
Always looking for a better life for her daughter, Mousad reached out to CareerSeekers and once more relocated.
CareerSeekers is a non-profit organisation supporting Australia’s humanitarian entrants into professional careers through paid 12-week internships. The CareerSeekers program provides in-depth preparation and support to both refugees and people seeking asylum who are either currently studying at university or looking to restart their professional career in Australia. According to a CareerSeekers’ spokesperson: “It’s a low-risk proposition for employers – the commitment is capped – but they may be able to offer further work to the intern and reap the benefits of having a more diverse workforce.”
“I started CareerSeekers because I saw this real desire from employers to want to employ staff who are resilient and committed – there was a real need around resourcing and resourcing strategies,” says founder and CEO Michael Combs.
“At the same time I was coming across people in our communities who had incredible skill sets and experience.” He points out that many people equate highly skilled migrants with taxi drivers, or Uber drivers who have PhDs (or convenience store workers who have Masters). It’s a known fact that people move here with experience and knowledge but they are still not given a chance, so Combs sought to provide one.
Combs says 77 per cent of the 754 people who have engaged with CareerSeekers go into permanent employment. Mousad is in that number. Combs attributes the success of CareerSeekers interns to the fact that employers are more likely to take on people who exhibit resilience and loyalty.
“When you have been displaced from your house and you have to figure out how to move and still have a smile on your face every single day – you’re resilient,” he says.
“Refugee employees stick around, they’re not interested in changing jobs every 12 months, they are loyal and that’s what every employer wants. And it’s something you can’t train into people.”
Mousad was placed into an internship with the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA). She has worked her way up from a digital risk and control intern to a permanent operations analyst.
“People say refugees are taking Australian jobs but look at the big banks – on any given day there are thousands of vacancies,” he says. “There is a big skills shortage in Australia and refugees aren’t stealing the jobs. Businesses are welcoming them, leveraging their skills and helping them become a part of Australia.”
While Mousad misses her family in Syria she says she has found a community in Australia, both at CareerSeekers and with CBA.
“CareerSeekers trust me and they trust my skills and still they give me more and more training and support,” she says. “Australia is my home and CBA is my family.”
Combs calls on all businesses to remember that modern day refugees share a similar history to non-Indigenous Australians.
“Whether your heritage stems from convicts, the second fleet or escaping Auschwitz, Australia is built on refugees and First Nation Peoples,” he says.
“The words in our National Anthem encourage and welcome people from distant lands. As employers we have an opportunity to do the same.”
Diversity is incredibly important in any workplace. Learn more about diversity management with AHRI:ASSIST.