How do refugees create professional networks in a new country?


How do refugees create professional networks in a new country?

It’s a catch-22. Landing a professional role in technical fields requires local experience and an industry network, but the best way to attain those things? A local job in the industry.

Brigid Delaney

When a recently arrived humanitarian migrant settles in Australia they face huge challenges. They have to find a home, adapt to a new country and culture, learn a new or polish up a second language, and get money to survive – all while dealing with past traumas.

But one of the biggest stresses they face, which impacts all of the above, is finding suitable work. Distressingly for new arrivals, more often than not their difficulty in securing a job isn’t due to a lack of qualifications, but rather a lack of local experience and references.

This catch-22 is thrown into its harshest light when you realise there are humanitarian migrants who have endured hardships in order to attain a high level of education and experience in their home countries, only to come here and find Australia’s job market is closed to them.

This was true for Jalal Albshara, who had completed a Bachelor of Economics at the University of Damascus and was working in accounts payable at a telecommunications company in Syria until 2013, when violence in the region began to escalate.

He relocated to Iraq, where he continued to work as a project accountant, but in 2017, as conflict in the area became increasingly deadly, Jalal fled Iraq with his brother and sister, and arrived in Australia in March 2017.

“We came to Australia with hope to rebuild our lives, to chase our dreams, and to resettle here as effective and productive members of society,” he says. “This is the hope of many refugees.”

But without a local network, this proved challenging.

“Before arriving in Australia, I was working for a construction company as an accountant on the Double Tree by Hilton Project. My sister was a chief pharmacist in a community pharmacy and my brother was at his final year in university. With all of our experience and passion for our careers, we couldn’t understand why we faced so much rejection.”


“The three primary barriers faced by refugees when seeking professional employment are no local work experience, no reference and no network,” says CareerSeekers Founder and CEO Michael Combs.

Going on the best available evidence, only 17 per cent of humanitarian migrants are in paid work after being in Australia for 18 months. And for those who do find work, it’s not necessarily easy.

“Around three in 10 of the recent migrants who had been employed since arriving in Australia experienced difficulty finding their first job,” according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

The most common reasons for that difficulty are a lack of Australian work experience or references (65%) and a lack of local contacts or networks (31%).

The effect of this is that many migrants, especially in the case of humanitarian arrivals, take unrelated jobs in industries like hospitality. Or they drive taxis or work as cleaners.

For Jalal and his siblings, the desire to continue their careers meant this was not their plan.

Local experience

“In our daily life we started meeting with people who had recently come to Australia. We heard their stories of trying to find a professional job but ending up working in markets or cash-in-hand jobs, which meant they weren’t learning and practising their English and weren’t getting to know what it really means to be part of Australia,” Jalal recalls.

“I knew this was not the path for us. Having years of experience, we thought our way to the job market could be smooth and we were very excited to share our knowledge, learn and grow, taking our careers to the next level.”

When CareerSeekers was established in 2015, it aimed to match humanitarian arrivals who had professional skills with work in their areas of expertise.

“Australian employers want and need to see local experience on CVs in order to benchmark skills and consider people for roles,” says Combs. “Upon arrival, refugees are told the most important aspect to employment is local experience; however, they have none and can’t get any without having any.”

Two steps forward

Through CareerSeekers, Jalal was able to secure an internship as an accountant at opr Agency (formerly known as Ogilvy PR), one of Australia’s leading PR agencies. At that point, he says, “the journey I had waited for started”. After an extended internship he was offered a permanent position.

Jalal’s sister, Nibal, secured an internship at Novartis Pharmaceuticals through CareerSeekers. While she was not initially offered a job, the benefits of building a professional network soon became apparent.

“The benefit of doing that internship was obvious,” Jalal says. “She was already more confident, and she kept looking for opportunities, seeking advice from her CareerSeekers consultant and keeping in touch with her networks. Three months later she was interviewing for a contract position with Novartis and she got the job in the same department she was interested in.”

In addition to building professional networks, Jalal and his siblings were also better able to build social networks once they began building careers.

“I still remember those days when I was hesitant to go to a local pub to watch a footy match or have some food, because I feared the small chats about what you do for a living, and having to reveal the fact that I was not employed.”

Working at opr Agency has changed that. “I believe in the power of work and in the sense of belonging, acceptance and identity that having a job brings to me and my family,” he says. “Every day I have the chance to communicate with different people, and each and every chat has given me more information, and allowed me to get more involved in my community.

“Considering the fact that I have limited connections with a small community, this information opened a lot of doors for me to initiate chats with other people.”

Hard work pays off

Other humanitarian arrivals tell CareerSeekers they recognise that in many instances they will have to take a few steps backwards in their career in order to equip themselves to deal with the differences between Australian work practices and those of their country of origin, as well as to improve English language proficiency.

“A successful intern needs to be patient,” says Hilda, a CareerSeekers participant who has interned at CommInsure, the insurance arm of Commonwealth Bank. “We need to be patient. When you first get in, you are worried: where is this going? What will happen? But we need to be patient, to see the result. Every day we are learning new things.”

Only the beginning

There are also flow-on effects to the model, explains Combs. “There are numerous ‘side’ benefits to getting local experience through CareerSeekers internships. This includes a chance to practice and improve English skills, and social interaction with the Australian community, which helps break down stereotypes,” he says.

“There have been so many challenges,” says Maria, whose initial internship at Westpac was extended for a further six months. “How do things work here and who are the people I need to talk to? That was the most challenging part in the first two weeks.”

Christine Parker, Group Executive, Human Resources at Westpac has been eyewitness to the positive impact CareerSeekers internships have.

“The program gives people entry to a mainstream corporate environment in their new
country and this is something we understand can be incredibly difficult to achieve,” she says. “We’re talking about people with tremendous skills and talents, but who have lost confidence and financial stability.”

Parker notes that, at a minimum, internships provide a supportive environment, allow interns to build confidence and give them the opportunity to see what is required in Australian workplaces.

“Hopefully there will be a role with us. But if not we can help people regain the confidence and the networks to achieve that somewhere else.