Opening up the door of hope for refugees in Malaysia
In a limbo that can last decades, a non-profit is helping marginalised communities thrive and find remote work opportunities globally.
Born stateless with no citizenship of any kind. Forced to flee a war-torn country. Found temporary refuge in a foreign land but has no right to work, get a driving licence or even send children to public school. These are not the typical stories one would share with a friend or a colleague but for refugees in Malaysia, like Ali Rustom, it is part of their reality.
Born and raised in Abu Dhabi, Ali and his family moved to Syria in 2006, but when war broke out, they fled to seek refuge in Malaysia in 2014. Since then, Ali has been a registered refugee with UNHCR — the UN Refugee Agency which reported that global forced displacement has surpassed an estimated 80 million at mid-2020.
Ali recalls, “The best part of my childhood is living in Abu Dhabi. Having a peaceful life, having our friends and family relatives around. When I was a kid, I even wanted to become a detective. I liked Sherlock Holmes stories and I liked movies infused with detective work. But things are different in real life.”
He adds, "I tend to keep myself busy to run away from my reality. Because if I start thinking about the fact that I'm still a stateless, hopeless refugee, 36 years old, single, I just get dark thoughts.”
In a similar predicament is Ekhlas Ahmed, who left a war-ravaged Yemen with her family to seek refuge in Malaysia. Having spent most of her childhood in Malaysia, the 20-year-old has never been to her home country.
An aspiring football player and model, Ekhlas shares, “Whenever you hear the word ‘refugee’ people will tend to have a lot of negativity. And I see a lot of refugees that were able to do different jobs, and they were rejected because they're refugees. They have the passion, and passion has no colour, it has no religion, no race, no ethnicity. Passion is just passion.”
Taking a dip in the talent pool
“Refugees who have left their home countries and are waiting to be resettled, they're typically in limbo. So I was just trying to think, what do I have that could immediately help some and that really is jobs”, explains Katrina Too, the founder of Open Door Policy (ODP), a not-for-profit initiative registered in Singapore that connects marginalised communities to remote jobs.
After learning about a friend’s Singapore-based snack company that had sought to create job opportunities for refugees in Indonesia by hiring them to work remotely in customer service, Katrina was inspired to visit them.
She recalls, “I had the pleasure of meeting a bunch of very talented young people with degrees, who belong to a community of refugees and we thought, something needs to be done in getting people jobs.”
Katrina adds that, “Your job is such a big part of your identity that waking up for over 10 years without having something to attend to is pretty meaningless. So having a job is the most practical way because that's feeding their dependents and families, and giving them a meaning to wake up for and to have dignified work.”
Through a specially designed 12-week online programme, Open Door Policy trains refugees for free in skills like business fundamentals and customer experience, and provides mentorship on soft skills and career advice. Qualified graduates are then connected to remote work opportunities, which allow them to work from anywhere in the world.
Connecting to the world
Thousands of kilometres away in Australia is Ricky Sallan, an account executive in the telecommunication sector and a volunteer mentor with Open Door Policy.
Ricky shares, “It was somewhat serendipitous that I came across ODP and it did align with a lot of what I believe — that everyone needs to be given an equal opportunity and if you're in a place where you can provide back, that you should certainly look at doing that.”
He recalls, “My mentee, Saleh, lives in Jordan now and he studied civil engineering. Through talking with him, I learnt a lot about him outside of his career aspirations.”
Ricky adds, “My idea of mentorship is that we are equals, and we kind of learn from each other and provide advice and speak about our experience to help the other person grow as well.
“In a way, Saleh was helping me learn more about society and cultures, and helped me become more self aware because he was so attuned with his own vulnerabilities, and his own self-confidence.”
Being part of something bigger
To date, Open Door Policy has trained some 70 refugees, and 75 per cent of its qualified graduates have landed remote jobs.
By the end of his programme, Ali got in touch with PartnerHero, his current employer. “They provided the laptop. I just have the internet at home and that transition was seamless”, he says.
“This is more like a community, like a family,” Ali shares. “My daily work seems just like an extension of the ODP programme, from meeting with the people on video calls, and having that inclusive knowledge sharing culture.”
For Ekhlas, she finds her experience in the programme has made her “a little wiser”. “I love how different people come together. When young passionate people come together, there will be a very big impact,” she shares confidently.
Keeping her aspirations in sight, Ekhlas continues to volunteer with Open Door Policy and hone her digital skills by helping them with social media content.
As Ali seeks resettlement for him and his family, he continues to contribute at PartnerHero in his role as a customer support associate.
Reflecting on his journey thus far, he shares, “I'm proud of what I was able to manage. After all that I've gone through. I'm hopeful that things will be better in the future with my current role.”
He adds, “Maybe without being a refugee, without going through what I went through, I wouldn't have met all those good people that I'm still meeting with. There is always a positive way to look at things.”