What businesses can do to act on the refugee crisis

By Alexa MacLean, Manager of Strategic Partnerships

It’s daunting to think that there are 65 million people in the world today who have been forcibly displaced from their homes (an average of 20 people are displaced every minute). Of these, 22.5 million are refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18, children whose perception of their place in the world is being shaped by rejection and denial.

In the face of this unprecedented humanitarian challenge, it’s hard to know where to start. We also tend to think that these issues are being addressed by people on the ground, governments or nonprofits, but the truth is that it takes a village. We all have a role to play in solving this crisis. Here’s how you can get started:

Actively engage to build empathy. There are a lot of great local organizations working to integrate refugees. The best way to learn is to listen, so spend time understanding their challenges and opportunities, and perhaps offer yourself to their cause. If you’re in Montréal, here are a few great ones to consider:

Identify core competencies. What does your company do? What are your strengths as a business? What are the resources, assets and capacities you might be able to share? Amplify what’s already working in your company: look at your own funding, know-how and connections. Share them.

Connect across industries. Integrating refugees will take collaboration between all kinds of industries, and a unified front across sectors. None of the most successful initiatives so far have been launched by one company or person alone.

Hire them. It’s one of the most meaningful things you can do to help refugees resettle. Check out Talent Beyond Boundaries, which links this “hidden” talent pool with employers around the world looking for skilled workers. Or emulate Jim Estill, the Canadian CEO of Danby Appliances, who helped our new neighbours find meaningful work, internships, training and volunteer opportunities. The Guelph businessman spent $1.5 million sponsoring 220 Syrian refugees, expanding his operation to include them.

Cook up some compassion. If you want to take a more personal approach to welcoming our new neighbours, open up your home, office or community space and host a dinner party. Refugees Welcome to Dinner provides materials, resources and tools to plan and host these parties, and is such a great way to foster love, friendship and connection.

If you need more inspiration, here are 10 companies leading the way

The Tent Partnership coalition is probably the most comprehensive example of the private sector taking initiative on the crisis. Launched in Davos in 2016, this group of 70 companies uses business ingenuity and entrepreneurial approaches to make an impact.

Hamdi Ulukaya (who founded the Tent Foundation) is a Kurdish immigrant from Turkey who is also founder and CEO of billion-dollar Greek yogurt company Chobani. He’s hired 300-plus refugees at his plant in upstate New York, is paying them above minimum wage and offers them shuttle services to and from the site.

The largest private sector partner of the UNHCR, IKEA Foundation has supported efforts in education, shelter, livelihoods and renewable energy by doing what they do best: building homes. Notably, they co-designed the award-winning Better Shelter, a moveable, modular emergency unit that is far superior to a tent.

Sawsan Al-Mot (left) of the Canadian Alliance for Syrian Aid (CASA) Credit: Tori Chirila

Western Union and Mastercard got together to offer digital technology for refugees to access remittances, banking, education, health care and other basic needs in a way that is unified and trackable. Their aim is to enable refugees, their host communities and donors to send and receive funds digitally, allowing for more transparency and long-term empowerment.

Born from a grassroots employee initiative, WeWork partnered with IRC to hire 50 refugees in the New York area for community roles helping to run the WeWork offices. With a 95% retention rate, WeWork has now made a 1,500 refugees hiring commitment over the next five years and is encouraging their network of over 90,000 members to do the same.

The online education platform Coursera has created a dedicated “Coursera for Refugees” program, which now has 30 nonprofit partners and more than 5,000 enrollments to date and provides mobile learning solutions to support refugees as they build new livelihoods.

A global platform that aims to house, unite and simplify humanitarian efforts under one program, Airbnb opened up homes in their community to host refugees, evacuees and others in times of need – for free. More than 16,000 hosts have signed up to date.

Vodafone partnered with the UNHCR to bring tablet-based teaching to areas where electricity and internet connectivity are unreliable or nonexistent. In doing so, Vodafone is building life-enhancing opportunities for refugees to learn and gain new skills.

Following the photo of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying lifeless on a beach in Turkey, the Swedish LinkedIn offices in Finland decided to start #welcometalent – a search function initiative that helps refugees promote their experience and skills to the job market. LinkedIn also offers asylum seekers in-person support to assist them in setting up their accounts.

Cisco engaged its employees through its Product Grant Program and by matching their donations and in-kind support for refugees dollar-for-dollar. Furthermore, they funded the first “health care in a box,” which enables access to remote translation and medical services. They’ve also provided Wi-Fi servicing to over 600,000 refugees and supported access to information by funding Refugee.Info.

If you need even more inspiration, check out a special episode of the C2 Podcast that we created on the topic in honour of International Migrants Day on Dec. 18. In it, we feature our partners at OpenIDEO, The Radcliffe Foundation, Ascend, WISE, IDEAS BOX and Burners Without Boarders.

Alexa is a part of the C2 team and volunteered at a refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece in 2016. With her colleagues Joelle Sarrailh, Antoine Roy-Larouche, Chloe Langevin and a team at OpenIDEO, Scott Shigeoka and Alisa Aahmadian, she led the Ideate for Impact project at C2 Montréal 2017. Stay tuned for this year’s edition of the program. 

Elyas Felfoul, Head of Administration at WISE with Nobel Peace Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus at Ideate For Impact at C2 Montréal 2017