Helping refugees with jobs and dignity, rather than sympathy
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees there were 65.3 million displaced people in the world as of December 2015. It’s a problem that won’t ever be solved by building walls or tightening visa laws. And it will only get worse as climate change necessitates further population shifts.
So what do we do about massive global imbalance? Wring our hands in despair? Give up work and devote our lives to helping the disposed? Or perhaps listen to a former refugee who knows what that life is all about.
Chaker Khazaal was born in Beriut’s Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian camp. So were his parents, after his grandparents moved there in 1948 when more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes. Khazaal grew up in an environment where electricity was intermittent, water was limited and the Lebanese civil war was a constant backdrop.
Khazaal (right) visits Tarshiha, the village his grandfather left in 1948
But he wants you to also know that this is one side of the story. “There’s all this negativity associated with the camps — and don’t get me wrong, it was hard — but there are a lot of beautiful things about having such a close community where everyone knows everyone else.”
Khazaal can tell you all this today because he got a sponsored education in the camp and then a scholarship to go to college in Canada. When he first got to Toronto he says he’d cycle and cycle, just enjoying the wide open space he’d always been denied. “It was something we only saw in movies. It was the definition of happiness.”
While volunteering at college, he was overheard telling his story, which led to the offer of training for international public speaking gigs — sharing an inspiring message of hope. “I’d talk to these kids at a school in South Africa and tell them their circumstances didn’t define who they were,” he says.
Khazaal then began reporting from refugee spots as a journalist, and writing semi-autobiographical tales in Confessions of a War Child. But here’s how he’s really making a difference: through his extensive contact list he set up Chalex Solutions, a global media, marketing, and management consulting firm headquartered in New York, that now has 150 employees across the world, 50 percent of whom are always minority groups or refugees.
“I hated the victimising of people,” he says of the venture. “I’d been on the receiving end and I wanted to break that stigma.” He also has a message for those who extend well-meaning, but ultimately self-serving, pity towards refugees. “Don’t throw a bag of aid at people to feel better about yourself and the world you live in.”
In case it isn’t obvious enough, Khazaal is a capitalist. While he recognises the necessity for charity, he sees the private sector as offering opportunity. “I don’t tell my staff they are poor refugees; I tell them they are employees and if they don’t do their job then they’re fired… Welcome to the real world!”
He’d like to see this approach of treating all people equally broadened out to an international level. “The resettlement of refugees needs to be smarter. If Australia needs nurses then let’s send nurses. If Canada needs construction workers, let’s give the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] more structure so that it can do this. I see a lot of emotional hot air, either for or against refugees, rather than actual solutions.”
This approach stems from painful memories. “My grandfather was a brilliant translator,” he remembers. “He lost both legs due to diabetes and had to queue for his medicine. If he’d been able to work, he could have paid for it himself, with dignity. And today across the Middle East you have kids lining up for aid, and they will remember that when they grow up.”
Khazaal at the 2015 Esquire Man At His Best awards gala
Chaker Khazaal was our Esquire Man of the Year in 2015. The story got picked up in Arab newspapers across the region, to the point where a kid in a refugee camp saw a picture and said he wanted to one day wear a suit like Khazaal’s and win an award. After the trip, Khazaal sent him the outfit, telling him to work hard and follow his dream. That’s what Khazaal did — he got an opportunity and then didn’t let it go.
Now it’s up to all of us to dream up more ways to offer a hand up, rather than a handout, to people.