The future of work for refugees with Lorraine Charles
Kiana Pirouz, Head of Marketing at We Are Rosie and Co-Curator of Before We Were Banned interviews Lorraine Charles, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Na’amal, which provides support for refugees and other vulnerable populations to access dignified livelihoods, particularly remote work. The two discuss Lorraine’s mission and what the ideal future of work for refugees looks like.
Kiana: Hi, I’m Kiana Pirouz, head of marketing at We Are Rosie and co-curator of Before We Were Banned. Welcome to season two of the Rosie Report podcast, where we pass the mic in every episode. Here’s how it works. Guests from the week before will talk to another rebel for good, change-makers who bravely opted out of traditional employment and turned their life’s work towards a mission that is also changing the paradigm of work. Welcome to the first episode of the season. This week, I’m so excited to chat with Lorraine Charles, co-founder and executive director of Na’amal, which provides support for refugees and other vulnerable populations to access dignified livelihoods, particularly remote work. Wow. Welcome to the Rosie Report podcast, Lorraine.
Lorraine: Thank you.
Kiana: Let’s get into it.
Lorraine: Yes. Let’s go.
Kiana: Lorraine, how would you best describe what you do with Na’amal?
Lorraine: So as you described, we support refugees to help them access employment. A lot of the refugees that we focus on live in places where it’s difficult for them to access employment, whether it’s because of protectionist labor market mechanisms, which means they can’t work legally, or whether there’s just a lack of jobs, lack of opportunity where they live. It’s very difficult for refugees, and I’m just speaking in the Middle East and some parts of Africa, to access employment.
Another big obstacle is the skills gap. A lot of refugees just don’t have the skills to help them navigate the space. We all know that the world of work is changing, the future of work, the future of jobs. Even people with traditional education backgrounds with traditional lives are struggling to adapt to this new world of work, especially with COVID. We’ve really hit a point where we have to reconceptualize the way we work, but also what we learn to access this work. So I’m trying to empower refugees and other vulnerable populations living in refugee hosting communities to navigate this space.
But also, more importantly, a lot of migration happens because of lack of opportunity. All of the things we see, people flooding to the borders of Europe, yes, they flee because of political reasons, but also they flee because there aren’t any opportunities where they are. And a lot of them don’t want to leave. They want to stay close to home. If I can find a way to get the global ecosystem, the global private sector to give them jobs where they are so they don’t have to move, they can have good jobs and stay close to their families, stay close to the communities where they can give back as opposed to crossing borders. And even when they cross borders, the lives they have are often a lot less dignified, using that word again, and often much worse than where they came from if they had good opportunity. So I want to change this.
Kiana: Wow, incredible and beautiful and so significant and crucial. And COVID definitely created the narrative and made it mainstream, the idea of remote work, but you were doing this before 2020. What did you see before this pandemic and this revolution for remote work that others couldn’t back then in the old normal?
Lorraine: Yeah. So I guess from my academic world, I’ve always worked with people who are not in the same country, the same city as I was. So we’re doing research projects and we live in different countries working on the same project, writing the same paper, doing the same research, interviewing similar people. So I was used to this transnational way of working. And then I actually got my first remote job with this UK-US organization. So my immediate boss was in Abu Dhabi where I live, but my team who I worked with were in the New York office. So I suddenly had to think, “Right, I have to navigate this.” And I was used to it because of working from the academic perspective, with other academics in different parts of the world. I was used to this. So we just sort of worked around it. And I saw just how powerful it was for me as a parent, and also not wanting to do the same thing and go to an office everyday. For me, it was amazing.
So when I started doing research on livelihoods for refugees, one of the big recommendations of our project was, “Why not change the narrative for employment? Why not promote remote work for refugees?” But of course, this was 2017. So I wrote an article for the World Economic Forum in 2017 about remote work for refugees. And at that time I was speaking to people, and companies were saying, “Remote work? We can’t do that. Like, why? Come to an office. Come to our office. You can’t possibly work from home.” So so up until COVID happened, a lot of my work in trying to get the project off the ground was trying to convince people that this is possible. And I would say to them, “Listen I work remotely.” “Yeah, but you’re different.” I’m like, “Why am I different? It’s completely possible to work remotely.”
And I think before COVID, I was sort of… I spoke in a few interviews, a few podcasts, but there was no real movement toward it. As soon as COVID happened, literally in March, suddenly a lot of emails and calls and people saying, “Can we speak? How can we get this project to happen?” And that’s when we actually launched, because people realized it was possible.
Kiana: Amazing. Yeah, it’s really telling that it took a global pandemic for the collective and people who are so tied to the traditional way to finally accept that work can still happen with a little bit more flexibility and independence. And that actually increases inclusion, diversity across the board, and so we’ve really seen that at We Are Rosie too, with remote work. It’s been a big shift, so that’s beautiful. And then if it wasn’t COVID, with the work that you’re doing, was there a defining moment that you knew that this is the kind of work that you wanted to be doing, or that you knew that you had to take action in this way?
Lorraine: Well, as I always say, I didn’t plan to set up a company, to set up a social enterprise. It was kind of by accident. I was a researcher. I guess I still am a researcher. But I was doing research, again, as I said, on livelihoods for refugees, and looking at organizations which were doing stuff, and I found a gap. So there were lots of great technical skills training programs, but there was no link to employment. There was definitely no link to remote employment. But there was also a gap in the sort of soft skills to help people access this employment. So I saw this gap and looked around. There was no one filling the gap.
And I met my co-founder just around the time I was sort of in the middle of some research. So I wanted just to do more research to understand the space, to see what people are doing, what people are saying. And she says, “No, no, no. We have to start something.” So after our first call, she said, “But aren’t we starting something?” I said and I thought, “Well, I thought we’re just doing research.” She goes, “No, no, no. We’re starting something.” So it was kind of by force that she was like, “Right, we’re doing this. This is a gap. No one’s doing it. We have to do it.” And that’s kind of what propelled me to do it.
And now she has a full-time remote job, quite a big job, so she doesn’t really have time, so I’m the one who’s sort of taken the reins and sort of move forward with it. So while she’s still a very big support, I do all of the stuff. But doing that research and seeing the gap made me realize that I have to do it, because no one else is doing it. And I’m not sure whether they weren’t doing it because they didn’t think it was important or whether they just didn’t see the gap, but for whatever reason, no one did it, and we filled that space.
Kiana: Wow. And that is truly how change happens. It’s a lot of identifying those gaps and just being brave enough to do it. So thank you to you and your partner for going on this mission.
Lorraine: I’m not sure brave is the right word. Sometimes I think it’s foolhardy, because sometimes it’s just so hard.
Kiana: It is.
Lorraine: Sometimes I wish I could have a normal life. But as I said to a friend this weekend, I said, “Oh my goodness. Sometimes I wish that I could have a regular job where someone just tells me what to do and I do it.” And he said to me, “Lorraine, you had that last year and you were so miserable. Why do you think this is what you need? This is what you were meant to be doing.” And I said to him, “Okay. Yes, you’re right. But sometimes I like to imagine that this is what I would like to do, but I know it’s not. It won’t ever happen.”
Kiana: It’s truly fair. It’s truly fair. I know. We have the same conversations at We Are Rosie. It’s really based on this soul calling, like a mission to create change. And being on the forefront of that is definitely not an easy position to be in, and so it requires a lot of self-care and a lot of… It’s not a normal life. It’s not a normal life at all, but it’s [crosstalk 00:09:50] and I think it’s critical, critical work that you’re doing. And I was just wondering about you and your partner who created Na’amal. Outside of just the gap, was there a broader mission that has led you to do this with refugees and remote work?
Lorraine: Well, I guess it sort of goes back to my passion for working with refugees. I mean, when I was in my 20s in London, I was involved with the Refugee Council, so I’ve always been interested in sort of helping and supporting people. And that experience is quite seminal to me, because it made me realize this is what I want to do. I want to work with refugees. And it took me many years to come back to a space where I was doing stuff.
So my first sort of more recent work with refugees was more academic. I did academic papers about the Syrian crisis and education for refugees. And then my first remote job was sort of more policy oriented, sort of again doing research to understand the space and understand the private sector engagement. So I always knew that I was on a mission to do something, but I didn’t really… As I said, I didn’t really plan to set up Na’amal. It was just something that happened. But I always knew that I wanted to do something, but I thought that thing would be research. I didn’t think it would be actually doing something, but using my research to support the narrative change.
Kiana: Beautiful. Tell me a little bit about the narrative that you are pushing to change with your mission.
Lorraine: Well, I guess the big narrative, as I mentioned earlier, is in the West we have this perception that refugees are coming to our borders because they want to live in Europe. They want to live in America. They dislike where they live. They’re coming because they just want to take what we have. That’s a narrative that’s been propagated by the media, by social media, about why refugees fleet, but that’s not the case. I mean, just, a refugee’s fleeing because he or she can’t live in their home country. They’re fleeing political violence. They’re fleeing a war. They don’t want to come to another country. They have no choice.
So most refugees actually settle in neighboring countries. More Syrians live in the countries surrounding Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey. The number that come to Europe are so such a small percentage of those that are close to home. And refugees stay close to home because they want to return home at some point. The ones that leave, the ones that cross the sea, that arrive in Greece and in Italy, they leave because they have no opportunity in Jordan, in Lebanon. In Lebanon, refugees have very limited access to employment. They can work in construction and agriculture. Similar in Jordan. The sectors are wider, but they have very little access to dignified employment. They often would informally in precarious conditions. It’s very difficult for them to have a dignified life. And often a lot of them are quite highly skilled and they aren’t allowed to practice what they’ve learned, so they cross borders because they’re frustrated. And we would be. Anyone would be. And that’s why people migrate.
In the West, especially Europe, we think of migrants as sort of highly skilled people that go to be doctors and teachers and nurses and engineers in other countries. Why is it okay for someone who’s British, white, usually male to migrate, but not equally valid for someone who is brown, who is Muslim, who comes from a non-first-world country to move for better opportunity? Why is it different? So I want to change the narrative that the people who are coming are fleeing because they have no choice, but also to give them the opportunity to make that choice. I am no longer a refugee. It’s safe in my host country. It’s safe in my country. I want to stay where I am, but I want to have access to the world. I want to shop on Amazon. I want a credit card. Why can’t I do that? Because I’m from Africa. Because I’m from Syria. It’s completely unfair. So that’s my soapbox.
Kiana: I love it. And I think that narrative truly is not what your average American will see in the media. And I resonate so deeply with what you say, firstly because I’m Iranian American, and secondly, my people have been really marred by the narrative, and it’s affected opportunities. We’re lucky, though, because our situation, my family situation, is very privileged in comparison to others. But the stigma of being Iranian sticks, and it’s very similar to why I launched Before We Were Banned.
To your point, we’re just people living in these things called borders. So if something terrible is happening within the border that we live in, we don’t want to leave. We must leave. And then once we do leave, we must find a way to thrive wherever we are. Which is very similar also to We Are Rosie, to give equal access to anyone regardless of their identity. And I really think that that part of the work that you do is so important, because I’m certain it weaves in your research and your ability to tell a story with facts.
Lorraine: Definitely, yes. Definitely.
Kiana: And so that storytelling is so critical to the plight of refugee workers, because it combats the stigma.
Lorraine: Yes. And also with remote work I feel it’s a democratization of employment. When you go to a traditional office, you sort of wear your identity on your shoulder. You’re Muslim. You’re a person of color. You’re female. You have a particular status because of your ethnic origin, because of your religion, because of your nationality. Whereas remote work, it kind of strips away all of those things, so often, and this is my hope for the employer, it doesn’t really matter what you look like. It doesn’t really matter what you sound like. It doesn’t matter what your accent is. It doesn’t matter what your first language is. You can do the work. You’re good to work with. Your output is good. And that’s all that should matter. All the other things shouldn’t matter. And that’s why I’d say remote work is just so important, because it allows everyone to have access. That’s the hope.
Kiana: I could not agree more. And that is one of the outcomes from this really horrifying pandemic, is one outcome is the normalization of remote work and the benefits of it. So it’s not just the flexibility and, “Oh, I don’t have to commute,” but we’re talking about increased diversity and inclusion. We’re talking about sustainability, not taking so many cars. We’re talking about honoring the mental health of people who might not thrive in an office setting. So the ripple effects are really critical. That’s really the core of what we talk about at the Rosie Report, so it’s really incredible to hear that from you as well. And I will end our conversation, sadly, because I don’t want to end our conversation, but what do you think the ideal future of work for refugees looks like?
Lorraine: I want to make this a norm, and recognize that remote work isn’t for the… It isn’t something that’s for the masses. It’s still quite a niche thing. People have the right technical skills. I want it to be a norm where an organization thinks, “Okay, I have these jobs, I can’t fill the job within my local talent pool. I need to look more globally.” But in fact, I want an employer to think, “I want the best talent. I don’t care where they are. I want to look globally. It doesn’t matter whether they’re from Sudan or whether they’re from Georgia or whether they’re from California. I want the best talent to do this job. Where can I find this talent?” That’s what I want to happen. So I don’t want employers to think, “I’m hiring a refugee.” I want them to think, “I’m hiring this talented individual. Yes, they’re a refugee, but it doesn’t matter.”
Kiana: Doesn’t matter.
Lorraine: A refugee is only a political title. It means nothing. I want them to realize that. “I’m hiring this individual who has this skill, who has this talent. That’s all I’m concerned about.”
Kiana: I love it. Beautiful. This is definitely a story that everyone needs to listen to and recognize is important. What you say about refugees is a political title, it’s so true. Once again, we’re all humans looking for opportunities and looking to use our talents without any sort of label to discriminate against. And yeah, really, really well said, Lorraine.
Lorraine: And also, everyone wants to look after their families. And for me, this is the most powerful part of Na’amal. While recognizing that that remote work is just for a limited number, there’s a ripple effect. So if we have two or three people within a community who have the skills to do this who don’t have to leave their communities, their entire community benefits, because they have a much larger disposable income. They can create jobs by being an entrepreneur on the side. They will give back more to their communities, because a lot of people from the developing world live in collective societies where the community’s as important as the single-unit family. So the ripple effect, I think, is just as powerful as giving one refugee a job. You’re not giving one refugee a job. You’re supporting the community in which they come from, much more so than us from sort of Western societies where we just mostly focus on our family units. It’s much greater than that.
Kiana: Absolutely. I think that’s a huge mindset shift, going from individualistic or nuclear to collective community.
Lorraine: Collective. Yeah, yeah. So, I mean, let’s do all we can to change the narrative, whether we talk about it, whether we write about it. And let’s not be afraid to challenge the negative perceptions when we see it, because it’s everywhere. How can we challenge it and sort of feel safe to challenge it?
Kiana: Absolutely. Lorraine, this has been such an incredible conversation. Thank you so much for sharing your journey and story with me and the Rosie Report. Before we sign off, where can people find your work online?
Lorraine: So our website, and then there’s a contact form there. So just contact me there. I’m on LinkedIn, Na’amal on LinkedIn and Twitter. But go to the website, and the links to all the social media is on the website.
Kiana: Okay, amazing. We’ll include those links in the show notes for everyone. And I’m so excited. This is the first episode of season two.
Kiana: I know. Very exciting. And in the vein of pass the mic, tune in next week, when Lorraine talks to Tammy Bjelland, founder and CEO Workplaceless. I’m so excited to hear that conversation. Until then, subscribe to the Rosie Report podcast on Spotify and Anchor, and be sure to check out more stories on building a future of work for everyone, by everyone at therosiereport.com.