The first skilled refugee pilot program recruit, Maya Assad, is now on track to obtain Australian citizenship

Maya Assad needed a break.

For more than a year, the engineer and her businessman husband were out of work as the economy of the country in which she was born and raised, Lebanon, imploded.

But their situation has been immeasurably aggravated by their status as Palestinian refugees, making them second-class citizens with almost no rights.

Palestinian refugees have been stateless in Lebanon since 1948.

Although Ms. Assad received her bachelor’s degree on a United Nations scholarship and worked as a civil engineer for eight years, she was unable to officially disclose her profession, which prevented her from joining professional associations and even sign jobs.

And when she and her husband bought a house, it had to be registered under the name of a Lebanese person.

But one ordinary day the phone rang and changed her life forever.

Maya Assad came to Australia with her husband and son. (Provided: Maya Assad)

The person on the other end of the line was following up on an application she made two years ago, on a whim, to be part of a new skilled refugee pilot program in a remote location called Australia.

Ms Assad, who said she had applied for more than 100 jobs over the years only to be rejected because of her refugee status, was taken by surprise.

“I forgot I applied for this one,” she said.

But even though she had long hoped to immigrate to Canada or the UK, Australia made her a little nervous.

“We don’t know anyone there,” she said.

A woman with a headgear stands in high visibility with water behind her
Maya Assad was the first refugee to arrive in Australia under the new scheme.(ABC News: Emily Smith)

But she was determined to spare her son a life of discrimination and pushed through the process.

On the first of this year, Ms Assad became the first person to arrive in Australia through a new skilled refugee pilot scheme.

Removing “administrative barriers” for refugees

The skilled refugee pilot program was launched on July 1 last year, with places for 100 skilled refugees and their families.

Just this week, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke increased that number to 200, making room for 50 Afghan nationals and 50 Ukrainian nationals and their families.

She stands holding a little baby
Maya Assad wanted to come to Australia to give her son a better future.(Provided: Maya Assad)

The program essentially gives refugees access to existing qualified visa programs, but with more flexible eligibility requirements.

Steph Cousins, chief executive of the nonprofit Talent Beyond Boundaries (TBB), which designed the program alongside the government, said many refugees faced bureaucratic hurdles such as a lack of documentation proving their skills or expired passports.

“But they may just have these administrative barriers that need to be overcome in the visa process.”

She said that while some refugees cannot afford the visa fee, the scheme has circumvented this by incentivizing Australian employers to recruit and then sponsor the applicant.

“So they hire a skilled worker and in return they cover visa costs and flights and things that would normally prevent refugees from accessing those options,” she said.

The trial is expected to last two years, after which she hoped the program would become permanent.

“We have a range of ideas”

Dr. Shaun Meares has always struggled to recruit workers.

His company Bluemar Consulting Engineers, in Esperance on the south coast of WA, is forced to compete with capitals and mining companies to attract talent.

A man in a high visibility shirt with blond hair and a short beard is laughing.  The back of a woman's head is in the foreground.  women
Dr Shaun Mears says it is difficult to attract workers to the region from Australia.(ABC News: Emily Smith)

But he is a firm believer in workplace diversity and has previously sought staff from around the world through skilled migrant programs.

“Human capital diversity is really important, so we have a range of ideas,” he said.

When he heard about the pilot project for skilled refugees, he was one of the first to sign up.

While this thrust him into a world of immigration law and negotiating the complexities of visas, 18 months later his new employee, Ms Assad, finally arrived.

“We think [the long process] it’s worth it,” he said.

“[It’s] exciting to be at the forefront…and to be able to lead the industry by example.”

‘It’s a good place’

As a Palestinian refugee, Ms Assad said there were beaches in Lebanon she was not allowed to go to because they were too close to Israel.

But in Esperance, it has many beaches on its doorstep.

A man and a woman in high visibility are standing near an ocean and a rock wall, looking at the camera.  A dog sits at the man's feet.
Maya Assad and Dr Shaun Meares now work together at an engineering company in Esperance.(ABC News: Emily Smith)

But other changes took some getting used to.

“At 6 p.m. you won’t find anyone here on the street, in Lebanon it’s the opposite,” she said.

“People are in the street at 12 p.m., at 1 a.m.

The pair are pictured from behind with a dog between them, walking down a footpath
Dr. Shaun Meares sponsors employee Maya Assad under the Work Agreement Pilot Program for Skilled Refugees.(ABC News: Emily Smith)

In four years, if all goes as planned, she and her family will also be eligible for Australian citizenship, which after a lifetime of statelessness is a hugely exciting prospect.

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