By Rachel Marciano
Imagine a biologist driving a cab for a living, or a civil engineer wiping down tables at a fast food restaurant to make ends meet. These are some of the real life stories College of Computing and Digital Media PhD students Badar Al Lawati and Redar Ismail have come across in Chicago’s refugee community.
With hopes of remedying these situations, Al Lawati and Ismail created BridgeLink, a refugee-hiring platform. Following a win at last year’s Campus 1871 competition, the two applied for and received a $100,000 credit grant via the Google Cloud Platform for Startups program. The team will use these credits, in addition to the technical support and mentoring opportunities accompanied by the monetary prize, to continue building out the BridgeLink platform. Al Lawati and Ismail hope BridgeLink will become the go-to platform for diversity employment, specializing in job placement for refugees in the STEM fields.
“Nearly 3,000 highly qualified refugees in the United States struggle to find employment, while the Department of Labor reports countless numbers of STEM jobs going unfilled because ‘they can’t find the talent,’” Al Lawati says. Originally from Oman, Al Lawati came to DePaul in 2009 on a Fulbright Scholarship. “Many refugees’ resumes are full of academic and practical experience, but because the credentials are foreign, they rarely even get called for an interview.”
Through specialized software and working with refugee databases provided by organizations and agencies around Chicago, BridgeLink aims to close the gap between the refugee community and corporate America. Currently, the platform allows companies to create profiles and post job openings. The team is working to program the other portion of the software, which will read resumes and match them to job postings and employers already on BridgeLink, essentially working as an employment matchmaker.
“We initially came up with this idea because we wanted to make a difference in the lives of people like us,” Ismail says.
Originally from Iraqi Kurdistan, Ismail has been a refugee his entire life. Growing up, Ismail lived in refugee camps in Syria and Turkey before being granted asylum in the Netherlands. He later moved to the United States on a student visa.
“In addition to the issues in their home countries, refugees and asylum seekers face many obstacles in their new countries, such as cultural assimilation and language barriers,” he says. “We want to make things a little easier on that population.”
Beyond cultural differences and language barriers, Al Lawati says another large factor in refugees struggling to find credential-appropriate employment is a lack of understanding from employers about refugees’ status in the United States.
“What many people don’t know is that refugees are already sponsored to be here by the government and are en route to becoming citizens,” Al Lawati explains. “Refugees and people granted asylum will not cost employers money in terms of visas or other sponsorships. So many employers turn away these highly skilled professionals because they think it will be a financial burden on their companies, when in fact, the U.S. government offers tax incentives to those who hire refugees. Like our company name, we hope our platform not only links refugees to the jobs they are qualified for, but also acts as a bridge to understanding among communities.”
With the help of the grant from Google, Al Lawati, Ismail and their team plan to continue building the platform and hope to get more employers and refugees involved in the coming months.
“This project has been an enormous effort from our team, and we are so thankful to everyone who has supported us over the last year or so,” Al Lawati says. “We’re hopeful that our platform will continue to grow so we can help as many people as possible.”
This article originally appeared in Newsline, the DePaul employee newsletter, and has been edited slightly for clarity.