Seven years ago, Mohammad H. was an Internet technology student, with the war in Syria erupting around him. But he stayed focused on his studies—until the day a stray rocket landed in the courtyard of his university during a math exam.
“It was like an instinct,” he recalled. “I just got up and ran. Without thinking, I found myself hiding under a table with some other students. I waited there a few seconds, and once I figured out a second rocket wasn’t going to come, I got up and ran further away.”
Like hundreds of thousands of Syrians since then, Mohammad, who was then 19, didn’t stop running until he crossed the border. Together with his older brother, he headed west and ended up in Lebanon, where he now lives.
In order to continue studies in his adopted homeland, he had to improve his English—his courses in Syria had been in Arabic—raise money for university fees, and get accustomed to a new system. He did not give up, completed his coursework and graduated last year.
But with an estimated two million refugees crowded inside Lebanon’s borders, Mohammad also knew his opportunities there were limited. “I think my best chance is going to be to move to another country,” said Mohammad, now 25, coming to the same conclusion as millions of other refugees around the globe.
Enter Talent Beyond Boundaries, a U.S.-based aid group that focuses on the nuts and bolts of helping people like Mohammad find work in the developed world.
The organization, which goes by the initials TBB, helps displaced people obtain work visas and tries to match companies with workers who can meet specific needs. TBB also assists with more basic tasks, such as helping candidates hone their interview skills and refine their CVs.
“We’ve got more than 10,000 candidates in our database, people we’ve found through social media, word of mouth, even by simply arriving in a village or camp and explaining what we do,” said Nuora Ismail, 28, a strategy manager for TBB in Lebanon. Ismail was born in the United States, but her parents met each other in Syria, where they both grew up.
“It’s a long and difficult process,” Ismail said. “We have to convince candidates to trust us, and we have to make sure they’re vetted. Then there are workshops, matching candidates with potential employers, and dealing with governments for work visas. There is preparation before the move and after they arrive. There is nothing easy about it.”
TBB is the creation of Mary Louise and Bruce Cohen, a couple who are both successful Washington-based attorneys. In an interview, Mary Louise Cohen said she and her husband were shocked to discover that of all the nongovernmental groups working to help refugees around the world, none were focused on both linking skilled professionals with potential employers and tackling related logistics, like the prickly task of sorting out visa issues.
“We didn’t realize at first how complicated the process would be,” she said. “But we were also very determined.”
Cohen said she was inspired by her own children, now aged 28 and 32.
“I would have done anything to make sure my children had opportunities, and yet that wasn’t possible for parents in these war-torn parts of the world,” she said.
The Cohens started asking questions in 2013, and within 18 months they were in Beirut as part of what would become a decisive fact-finding mission.
“There were questions we needed to have answered before we decided to move forward,” Mary Louise Cohen said. “Were there really skilled professionals in the region, or had they already fled? Would the refugees be interested in this kind of help? How would the United Nations and other organizations look at this?”
Six months later, in the summer of 2015, they hired their first employee—Sayre Nyce, now TBB’s executive director—and started work.
Success has been limited so far. As of February, the group has found jobs for only three candidates, and none of the three have actually started work. So far, only two countries, Australia and Canada, have said they are willing to consider granting vitsas to TBB candidates. And in the United States, the biggest contributor to TBB’s estimated $800,000-per-year budget, the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, has indicated it will not renew its grant when it expires in September.
But Mary Louise Cohen is not deterred.
“We’re proving this kind of model can work, and we hope and believe that will pull others into this space,” she said. “Whether TBB is a player in this field in 10 years is not at all relevant. I think our contribution is to pioneer a kind of model that will eventually help hundreds of people a year, with all the impacts that implies.”
For the refugees, the hope that kind of possibility brings is essential.
“When I first heard about TBB, I thought to myself that I didn’t need to put my name on another list for another aid group,” said Manal, a 42-year-old Internet technology administrator from Yemen now living in Jordan. “But the skills I am refining with the help of TBB will help me no matter what happens. I feel more prepared, much more sure of myself.”
Mohammad, the Syrian student who fled his country after the rocket landed at his university, agreed.
“I used a computer for the first time when I was around 12, and I wrote my first computer code when I was 15 or 16,” he said. “As long as I can remember, my dream has been to work in this field. With the help I am getting, I feel like I am really getting ready. It is such a good feeling to be hopeful.”