Kelly Acheson, Communications Specialist, WES
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are currently 27.1 million refugees worldwide, and every year 1.5 million children are born into refugee status. (These numbers are only a fraction of the more than 100 million forcibly displaced people around the globe.) The vast of this number underscores the need for decisive action on the part of national governments and NGOs to provide safe resettlement pathways for refugees. At the same time, state and local governments can collaborate with the private sector to reframe the narrative around refugees, drive change, and celebrate diversity for the strength that it is.
To commemorate Refugee Awareness Month, World Education Services convened refugees, advocates, resettlement agencies, and other interested partners for a Twitter chat on refugee inclusion efforts in the U.S. and Canada. Using the hashtag #RefugeesThrive the conversation focused on how employers and communities can be more welcoming of refugees. A tweet from IRC’s Center for Economic Opportunity noted that “refugees want the same thing as everyone else,” including “[a] sense of security for themselves and their families, and opportunities to be included in their community.” To that end, chat participants emphasized the importance of acknowledging shared values and aspirations in order to create more welcoming communities and workplaces.
What follows is a summary of some of the key insights from the Twitter chat.
Effective, Inclusive Policies
Chat participants affirmed the need for governmental policies that facilitate and advance inclusion efforts. More specifically, the Refugee Advocacy Lab endorsed “policies that recognize international training & credentials and that prioritize economic empowerment programs for newcomers, like financial education & counseling, credit building loans, and economic empowerment.” Participants agreed that the U.S. and Canada need to pursue policies that expand equitable opportunities for economic mobility and long-term inclusion for refugees including those that eliminate systemic barriers, such as barriers to licensure.
In the U.S., an important piece of federal legislation—the Bridging the Gap for New Americans Act—that would “address systemic barriers by engaging the U.S. Department of Labor in a study of the factors impacting the employment of refugees and immigrants who hold international credentials” has passed the Senate. And a growing number of states are advancing bills that promote economic mobility, per the IMPRINT Coalition.
Reframing the Narrative Around Refugees
Another common theme that emerged in the chat was the need to reframe narratives around refugees, given that narratives can have a determinative effect on emerging policies and best practices.
Employers can lead the way by identifying refugee talent, hiring refugees, and investing in their professional development. Per the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education & Immigration: “We need to shift the narrative away from employers seeing refugees only as entry-level workers to a narrative that acknowledges & celebrates the diversity of skills and talents refugees bring.” Bayan Khatib, a Canada-based former Syrian refugee who founded the Syrian Canadian Foundation, noted that employers can do this by focusing on refugees’ existing skills and credentials “and not culturally specific items like how résumés are formatted or interviewing styles.”
Collaborative Models: An Effective Welcoming Framework
In Canada, employers such as Starbucks, IKEA, and McCain Foods are actively hiring and investing in refugees, setting a positive example for other companies. According to ACCES Employment, in collaboration with employment agencies, “these companies are making positive change in the lives of refugees through training and employment. This collaborative industry and community model works well, and it can be replicated in different sectors.”
Collaborative programs between employment agencies, community stakeholders, and corporate partners are especially supportive. In these models, corporate partners invest in people with lived refugee experience through training, mentorship, and employment; and employment agencies mentor job seekers with refugee experience before the interview process starts and offer workshops on topics related to hiring refugees, such as sensitivity training.
The Tent Partnership for Refugees emphasized the importance of the collaborative partnership model: “Having a network of strong local partners is key when it comes to ensuring that refugees can thrive in their new communities.” When employers partner with resettlement providers, they can offer not only employment opportunities, but also a wide array of other tools, including networking support, job readiness training, mock interviews, workforce development programs, and résumé assistance.
Elements of Welcoming Communities
Community sponsorship is a particularly effective collaborative model for refugee inclusion, as it brings local communities together to welcome and support refugees. As Community Sponsorship Hub noted, “[l]ocal communities and employers can work together through community sponsorship, to center the local community (and its diverse members) in robust and ongoing support to refugees.”
Volunteers and community sponsors are the cornerstones of welcoming communities. According to Church World Service (CWS) Global, “[c]ommunity volunteers play a critical role in welcoming refugees. Oftentimes, communities work together to help refugee families acclimate to their new homes and adjust to life in the U.S.”
Examples of welcoming cities that are leading the way in the U.S. include Aurora, Colorado, which offers a City Resource Guide for newcomers that includes information about housing, community services, safety, and important city phone numbers; Seattle, Washington, which passed resolutions welcoming refugees and affirming a commitment to being a welcoming city; and Kansas City, Missouri, which created “a steering committee of community leaders to help develop a local, multi-sector immigrant and refugee inclusion plan.”
In British Columbia, municipalities in Tofino, Kelowna, Vernon, and Fairmont Hot Springs exemplify welcoming communities. According to World University Service of Canada (WUSC), 15 workplaces in the Tourism and Hospitality sector across British Columbia have welcomed HIRES participants to their communities. The HIRES program is a unique new employment-linked sponsorship pathway for refugee students, funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. Through HIRES, Canadian workplaces employ refugee youths and leverage community sponsorship. The program offers economic opportunities and durable solutions to refugees by providing education, training, and employment opportunities through employment-linked sponsorship.
The Power of Diaspora Communities
Diaspora groups are often found in welcoming communities. They play a crucial role in helping recent refugees connect with another and their new locales. Per the Syrian Canadian Foundation, diaspora communities help refugees improve their language skills, “access services such as translation and interpretation, attend cultural and religious events as well as network with others to better integrate.” Moreover, diaspora communities provide legal, educational, physical, professional, and psychological support to refugees. In addition to offering resources, diaspora communities can also provide a network for activism for refugees in both their host country and their country of origin.
In conclusion, a common theme that emerged throughout the chat was the need to ensure that refugees can exercise decision-making power in the creation and implementation of policies and practices that affect them. As Refugee Congress succinctly put it, “Refugees know what we & our communities need. Employers & local governments should develop equal partnerships & collaboration with refugees and jointly develop plans that build a diverse & inclusive workforce and community for all of us.” Refugee involvement in decision-making will help lead to inclusive, sustainable decisions. In the words of Twitter chat participant Martha Guerrero Ble: “When #RefugeesThrive, everyone benefits.”