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What remote work means for refugees, with Lorraine Charles


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Through the work of Na’amal, Lorraine Charles helps prepare refugees for the global workforce.

Since its founding in 2019, Na’amal connects displaced people to potential employers, partnering with leading organizations to support people who have been displaced by hardship through skills training, mentorship, and remote work placement opportunities. 

Labeling herself as a “reluctant entrepreneur,” Lorraine’s background is in academic research. She remains a research associate at the Centre for Business Research at the University of Cambridge, and today she combines her expertise of refugee education and employment with a particular focus on digital work. 

In this episode, she shares with Job the many challenges Na’amal and the people they work with have to overcome to ensure refugees can work remotely. She explains how shifting demographics in Europe, Africa, and beyond make refugee hiring the logical decision for employers seeking to recruit. And she reflects on contrasting European attitudes to refugees in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. 

Lorraine also makes a passionate pitch for employers to work with her to recruit interns as an opportunity to trial potential talent. For any employers interested, you can find Na’amal at or contact Lorraine directly through LinkedIn:

Episode transcript

Job: Hi, I'm Job, CEO and co-founder of Remote, and this is Off Mute, the podcast that explores managing distributed teams across the globe. I've been lucky enough to talk to Lorraine Charles today in our third episode of the series.

Lorraine is a specialist in educational and employment of refugees, especially within digital work. And as co-founder of Na’amal, Lorraine believes remote working is key to our mission of preparing refugees for the global workforce. So, I was truly fascinated to learn more about the incredible work Lorraine is doing.

She shared her considerable knowledge of global displacement and spoke passionately about how matching refugees to employers can benefit both parties. I'm excited to share this conversation with you, and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

Hello, and welcome back to the Off Mute Podcast from Remote. As usual, I've invited a guest to talk to me about remote working and distributed teams, and this episode promises to be a really interesting chat.

My guest today is Lorraine Charles, a researcher with a wealth of experience exploring the topic of refugees, education, and employment.

In 2019, Lorraine founded Na’amal, a not-for-profit that works with refugees to prepare them for the global workforce. In particular, Na’amal puts a strong emphasis on remote work and how it can help refugees to overcome barriers to employment.

Lorraine is also a Research Associate at the Centre for Business Research at the University of Cambridge. And her work sees her travelling between the UK and the UAE.

Lorraine, we're so thrilled to have you on the show today.

Lorraine: I'm so excited to be here, Job, really happy to be here and to talk to you. I've been a big fan of Remote for a long time, so it's a real pleasure to be here today.

What is the origin of Na’amal?

Job: Likewise, yeah, you've written already on our blog. I am genuinely curious, I was looking into you, looking into the organization you co-founded, and my first question was, how do I pronounce the name and where did you come up with the name? What is the origin of the name?

Lorraine: So, “na’amal,” it's an Arabic word, and it's a play on words. The word “amal” means hope, we hope or we work. So, really, the idea was we hope in Arabic, but the play on words is really beautiful because with work, brings hope.

And I was living in the Middle East, I was in a coffee shop speaking to this Syrian lady, telling her of what I do, and I said I need a name. And she told me the “na’amal,” and I thought, I love it, it's beautiful.

Job: It is a really beautiful name, I love it. I would love it if you could tell a little bit about — I mean, I gave a little bit away in the intro, but what do you do with your organization? What caused you to found it, let's start there.

Lorraine: I didn't plan to form an organization. I was doing research looking at the challenges that refugees faced for employment. I was doing the research in the Middle East, and I saw many gaps as a researcher does. And one of the big gaps was that there's a very narrow and traditional view of what employment would look like.

So, there were great training programs, but they supported refugees to work in the communities where they lived. And at that time, I was working remotely, and I thought, “Well, why don't we put what I was doing and what I saw together?”

So, this is where the idea of remote work for refugees came up because I was doing research, saw the gaps, and I was working remotely myself.

And I thought, “Well, why can't refugees do this? They have these great technical skills, they have really good English, surely, they can do more than what was expected of them at that time.” So, that's where remote work for refugees came about.

Job: It's fascinating, it seems so logical. I think we plucked a statistic from your blog, which is that there's over 33 million refugees right now.

Lorraine: I think it's perhaps more than that now. I think I wrote that before the Ukraine crisis and more recently, Sudan. So, the scale of displacement is increasing constantly, it's not something which is decreasing. How do we tackle it? Well, we really focused on a small group of individuals, we can't focus on everyone.

So, we focus on those who, if it weren't for the crisis, would be in positions of leadership, who would be changemakers in their communities. So, those who have really good digital skills, really good levels of English, we want to support those. But we see this spreading a trickle-down effect into the communities.

So, whilst we can only work with a particular group, this has a much larger effect on the rest of the community because they are changemakers in their societies.

How does Na’amal help refugees and displaced people?

Job: Maybe give us an idea of how do you get started with this? What does Na’amal do? You find these people and then what happens? I am genuinely very curious because I wonder how you do this.

Lorraine: So, I'll give you an example of the program that we have happening right now in Ethiopia. It's funded by the Conrad Hilton Foundation, and we’re working in partnership with the Canadian NGO called Digital Opportunity Trust. We have 30 refugee learners who are training to be full stack web developers.

So, they do the full stack web development program, and our program consists of the professional skills, the human skills. These 21st century skills that we know employers always ask for; communications high management leadership, that's what we focus on.

Learners will have this holistic education with the technical skills and the soft skills happening at the same time.

How do we find them? Again, we use our partners on the ground because we really focus on individuals who already have a certain level of education, who have perhaps been through some training before. We use partners on the ground to help … they’re our filter, they funnel the learners to us.

At the end of the training, everyone has an internship because we see this is a way to get everyone some work experience but even much more important, everyone has a mentor, and this mentor is their link to remote work.

The mentors are people from all these remote companies that are used to navigating this space. And we know that when we find jobs, we don't get jobs through applying, we get jobs through our networks. So, we're trying to create these networks for our learners so they can access this world which we have become so used to.

Job: I can only imagine the range of challenges that you come across while doing this. Can you talk through that? Like what happens when you find somebody and what are the kind of challenges that you encounter?

Lorraine: The challenges are many. I'll give you an example of one of our alumni who we've actually hired.

Job: That's great.

Lorraine: So, I'm really proud that we've hired one of our alumni, he's an Eritrean refugee in Ethiopia. So, when he first graduated a year and a half ago, he got a job with someone from our remote work community (so I'm very happy about that).

And someone who was a remote influencer on the remote influencer report, and he said, “I don't know how I can be paid.” So, I thought, “Okay, he doesn't have a bank account that he can get paid into.”

So, I said, “Okay, let's try Wise.” So, he tried Wise, he was rejected because he doesn't have a passport, he only has UNHCR identification. He emailed them, explained the situation, he was able to open a bank account, and now Wise, accepts refugee ID as a form of ID to open bank accounts. So, that was one challenge.

We sort of, each challenge, we have to think, “Okay, how do we do this? What do we need to do?” That was one significant challenge. Another challenge was that a lot of refugees live in places where connectivity is problematic.

We worked in Lebanon, Lebanon was the most challenging place I think we've worked because apart from the connectivity, there's all the crisis that are going on. So, we just had to find ways to provide solar powered devices for connectivity, just figuring out what we can do. Hopefully, we'll be working in one of the refugee camps soon.

And again, we're trying to work with partners that can help support connectivity, having devices is another problem. So, we always make sure that on our programs, we give learners devices because without these devices, they can't actually work.

So, you have to think really holistically, what do we need to be able to navigate this space, and try to provide all our learners with these things.

Job: You already gave a really nice example of the person that you end up hiring yourself. Have there been other successes of which you are particularly proud?

Lorraine: Yes, so it was a beautiful story. On New Year's Day, I woke up and one of our alumni donated back to the organization.

Job: Oh, wow.

Lorraine: He works for Meta. We have really incredible, incredible alumni and we want to have many more stories. We need support to have many more stories. We need people to hire our talent, to mentor our talent because they're all really incredible.

Can you tell us more about how Na’amal operates remotely?

Job: Tell me a little bit about the organization. It is a not-for-profit. And so, other than donations from successful alumni, how does the organization work? How many people are working with you on this?

Lorraine: So, we have a hybrid model. We have a nonprofit in the Netherlands, we also have a company in England, we really wanted to build a sustainable organization. 

And with my research at heart, I saw the problems that nonprofits faced, and I didn't want to be on this sort of keep asking for donations. So, the idea of having the company was how do we build a business around the work that we're trying to do?

We're not quite there yet, we're going there. So, all our projects are donor funded, so we have donors that pay for the training. But then we have other ways of generating income, companies sponsor our mentorship program, we don't have regular donations.

We're trying to build a recruitment pipeline so that we can then become much more sustainable. So, even if our training is donor-funded, our core costs, all the things we want to do for growth and sustainability are covered by the income that we make as an organization.

How many people do we have working with us? Well, that's an interesting question, all our team are remote. We have someone from Romania, from Tanzania, from the U.S., living in the UAE and Thailand, lots of different places. We have trainers who just work on the project basis. One, a Tunisian lady in Germany, a Kenyan guy in Kenya, so we really are a global organization.

So, the core team is small, the core team is six of us, but then we have other people who do different parts, different things as we need. So, the trainers just work on projects.

We have a lot of volunteers who do other things but most importantly, we're a community. We've had 170 people who've mentored our talent.

Job: Amazing.

Lorraine: And this year, we'll have many more again this year. So, we're trying to build a community. It's not just the team, the community’s what's important.

Job: That's great, I love to hear it and I always think to myself, “Well, if you can have the impact on one person's life and be successful there, then that's sufficient,” that's a good start and clearly, you've been able to do so.

Lorraine: Yes.

Why should employers pay attention to the work Na’amal is doing right now?

Job: If I'm an employer and I hear this, I think, well, that's all great, but what does it mean to me?

How do you connect with employers, maybe looking for talent? I think it's well-established that talent is one of the great things that is always in demand. Yet, especially from our perspective, we see that there's still many employers that are mostly interested in hiring only people around their office.

How does that conversation go with you? How do you think about convincing employers, “Hey, maybe you should look at talent like these people, like these refugees,” for example?

Lorraine: So, there is a global shortage of talent, especially tech talent. Companies really can't find the talent they need and the talent that they need doesn't actually exist around where they live.

So, I think companies are beginning to quickly realize that they literally can't find the talent they need in their areas. So, it has become necessary for them to look beyond their 30-kilometre radius.

One thing that we do try to convince them about is the benefits of a diverse team of diverse talent. Because even though they begin to look wider than their communities, they still look for talent that looks like them, that sounds like them, that went to the same schools.

But research shows that diversity improves performance, diverse teams increase profits. So, it's common sense, companies want to improve their profits, we know the diverse teams do that.

Another thing I say to them is, if your market is only Europe, you need to look beyond Europe for your market, because Europe has an aging population. So, that isn't just out for talent, that's for customers.

The population of Africa will be 80% under 30 by 2030. So, just those demographics alone, it shows companies that they need to look beyond their borders, look beyond their continent for new markets and new talent.

Job: That's an incredible statistic; the young population in Africa, I didn't hear that before.

Lorraine: Yes, exactly, and that's where the talent is. When I was in Kenya a few weeks ago, all the big tech companies are there recognizing that that's where the talent is going to be, and that the youth are talented and they're eager and I mean, they're incredible.

How can you hire refugee talent around the world?

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What does the refugee hiring process look like with Na’amal?

Job: So, how does this process work? You find an amazing refugee, how do you then match that talent with an employer? How does that process work?

Lorraine: This is the hard part because right now, I think employees are still reticent. The talent that we are working with are still an unknown talent. Their LinkedIn profiles, their CVs don't look familiar because often, they've had gaps in education, gaps in career because of their movement. They go to universities which we don’t recognize.

So, often, when a company in the global North hires someone from Africa, they probably went to a U.S. University, so there's some recognition there. But the talent we work with, they don't have many of these points of intersection of recognition that companies are used to, so there's a lot of talking to the companies.

I think one of our strategies, which we think is successful, is our mentorship program. We get companies to mentor our talent. It's very non-committal, they don't have to promise to hire.

And when they actually mentor the talent, they see how incredible the talent is. And then they think, “Well, we're spending our resources mentoring this talent, we see how incredible they are, we need to hire them.”

So, we have strategies like that to support them. We do lots of advocacy, we have a podcast. We organize with MIT, Migration Summit trying to highlight the potential that there is within this community.

Job: And today, this is mostly software engineers that you educate that way. Are you seeing a pull for other positions as well?

Lorraine: We're focusing on these high-tech sectors because this is where the great demand is. I think we will be looking at other sectors later on, perhaps graphic design, UX, UI. But really right now, our focus is on software development, perhaps game design.

We're having conversations about how can we train game designers on the African continent, which is quite exciting because again, there's no representation within the sector. So, to have game designers from the continent who bring their perspective to the games and again, opening up to a much larger audience.

Job: Yeah, it's a great idea. The game market is often undervalued by people but it's larger than the entire media market. So, it's definitely one to consider, that's very interesting.

Have opinions about refugees changed since the war in Ukraine began?

Job: Have you seen especially since the war in Ukraine, have you seen a change in how people think about refugees maybe a positive one, maybe particularly in Europe?

Lorraine: So, this is a very problematic issue.

Job: That’s a big sigh!

Lorraine: And I'm happy you brought it up because I like to talk about this. So, I think the Ukraine crisis shows what's possible with political will. Ukrainians were welcomed into the EU with open arms. Yes, there were still challenges integrating up into the workforce, but the pathways were there.

The same thing did not happen and does not happen with other refugees. We know that the political will was there to help the Ukrainians. If the political will was there to help other refugees, then things will be a lot easier. So, without being too political on your podcast …

Job: No, you can be!

Lorraine: Okay, good! The whole narrative around, yes, we accept Europeans and we don't accept Africans or Middle Easterners is a racist policy from the European Union. There is no other difference which separates a Ukrainian refugee from a Sudanese refugee.

The Sudan crisis has happened very recently. I don't hear Europeans saying, “Oh, come.” There perhaps were larger Sudanese communities in the UK than there were Ukrainian communities. But we don't have that permissiveness of the EU towards Sudanese leaving.

Sudanese are very educated, so they would easily contribute to the workforce of Europe, but the political will isn't there. So, I think what the Ukraine crisis shows us is, if there's political will, then it's possible, but right now, there is none.

Job: I think this is a thing where it'll be difficult for us to influence policy much more than we are by talking about it. Are there things that are within our control or where we can push on for example, making it easier to employ people or other issues that I'm not aware of, that you might encounter while trying to place refugees?

Lorraine: So, I think the virtual mobility that we allow. Remote is a leader in allowing this virtual mobility. And we have to think in some cases, perhaps refugees don't necessarily want to make the trip to Europe.

They leave because they have to for safety but also, where they are, there is no economic stability. If we provide this virtual mobility, bring the jobs to them as opposed to having them come to jobs, then we are contributing to sustainable lives, to economic development where refugees are.

So, I think, yes, resettlement is important, labour mobility is important, but also, the work that we do in providing a mechanism for people to work where they are.

How can companies start working with Na’amal to find refugee talent?

Job: If I'm an employer and I hear all of this and I'm like, “Well, I need talent, this sounds very interesting,” what is the process of working with you?

Lorraine: Tell us what you need, and we'll match your talent. Well, right now, we want companies to host interns because this is a great opportunity for you to get to know the talent in a non-committal way.

We ask for it to be paid, but it's a four to six-month commitment. You can test the talent, you can understand what the challenges are, and then we will help you with the process.

We will help you figure out how to address the challenges. And of course, with Na’amal and Remote working together, we have an employer of records which is already there. So, I would say start with an intern.

We do have talent who are graduated, who have a couple of years’ experience as well, if you need more senior talent. But if you start with an intern, you get to mould them into the type of employee you want, and you get amazing talent. So, come to our website,, I'm sure you'll have on the show notes.

Job: We will.

Lorraine: Find me on LinkedIn, but we're really looking for organizations who are committed. This is a win-win. You aren't just helping refugees, you are also supporting the work that you do, new clients, new markets, and also, having a diverse team, better performance.

Job: That's really great. I wanted to ask you, because of course, you have a background in research as you said, and you said, “Well, I'm a hesitant entrepreneur, I was just doing research.” Can you tell us a little bit about the research that you've done and research that you're doing?

Lorraine: Yeah, so initially, I was doing research on education and then livelihoods for refugees. So, right now, I'm doing a lot of stuff around the future of work. What is the future of work going to look like? Looking at digital labour platforms, how are platforms supporting employment?

Because we have an idea that the Ubers and the Upworks are kind of problematic. We have an idea that the generative AI data tagging micro work, they're all these narratives around this type of work. But we're really trying to understand how these types of platforms can support people entering the labour force.

So, for example, when we talk about gig work, we see it as an entry point. It doesn't necessarily have to be sustainable long-term work, but it's an entry point to the digital labour economy. So, I'm doing research around that.

One thing, there's very little research around remote work for refugees, this is a new space. There has been no wide scale employment of refugees remotely.

So, again, doing research to understand this space, to understand what the challenges are, what the opportunities are, and how best we can support organizations to hire refugees.

So, I still do consultancy for the UN. I'm doing research for the ILO around digital labour platforms and how this integrates refugees under the people in the global south.

But also, within Na’amal, we actually want to do some longitudinal study of what is a lot of impact of our work. Because only then, do we know, are we doing the right thing?

How is this work impacting communities, not just individuals but families? Are more children going to school? Are kids being successful to go to university because there's a member of the family who's able to access dignified remote work.

Job: My thesis has always been that, if we do a really good job of connecting talent with opportunities and doing good job, meaning is that they're going to earn significantly more than they would otherwise locally, that would have a positive secondary effect. And so, I guess this is one of the things you're looking into.

Lorraine: That's exactly it. We have the same hypothesis that by having this money coming into the community but has a much larger ripple effect. And this means that this person whose earning significantly more could open a business and hire people. Their families do better, their communities do better.

But also, they act as role models for others to do the same, so we hope that there are more people within the community that also do this work. And we've seen it already, we've had siblings who've been part of our program one, one year, and then a sibling the following year. So, we do see the ripple effect happening.

Job: That's great, you keep us in the loop about that because it's a large part of the reason why we started Remote in the first place. And a lot of my motivation comes from hearing those kind of stories of people that were able to elevate themselves and their peers and their community to greater heights or previously they didn't have access to a lot of opportunities.

Job: I am the CEO of a company called Remote, every other interview they ask me, “What is the future of work?” But you're actually doing research, I'm just trying to build software. It's obvious that it's remote work.

And you've alluded to gig work kind of things. What other things are you seeing? What other things are you curious about? About how work is going to transform over the coming years?

Lorraine: I think the global demographics is one thing that interests me. We know Europe has an aging population; Japan is critical with the aging population. So, I think the demographics of who is working and how they're working is interesting and also, with AI.

Before November, no one heard of ChatGPT, and suddenly, it's at the tip of everyone's tongues. So, I think one thing we do know is that it's unpredictable, and AI, it's changing things so quickly. But one thing I think we can predict is the people who will do well are the people that know how to use these tools. People who know how to take advantage of it.

And another thing which won't ever change is the sort of soft skills, the human skills. Whilst we want people who are technically good, we want people that we can work with, people who can communicate well, people who can think critically.

So, whilst the technical skills might change, and the actual tasks that we do might differ, we still need people that we can get along with, that we can work with, and people who can think and grow and be part of a good team, that's really important.

Job: Oh, I love that, that's such a positive message to end on. I have a last question that we ask all our guests.

Can you think of a time when you had to deal with a challenge that made you think, “Well, this can only happen with remote work?”

Lorraine: I mean, everything that I do is a challenge. I mean, the fact that Na’amal exists is a challenge. I mean, when I first started Na’amal, before COVID, everyone was like, “No, it was never going to work, it's niche.” Refugees can never work remotely, and now, they are working remotely.

I would never be able to hire my alumni who lives in Ethiopia if it weren't for remote work. I mean, I have this amazing, amazing guy who's working with me because he can work remotely. I have a great comms guy who's from Tanzania living in Thailand who lived in Abu Dhabi.

I said to him, “I don't care where you live, I just want you to work with me because you're amazing.” My program manager, she's from Romania, living in Abu Dhabi, who knows where she's going to live — but I will never have this amazing team if it weren’t for remote work.

And for me, the fact that I can choose my team, I mean, that's amazing. And that's why I feel the power of remote, and I'm going to keep hiring my alumni. I will never be able to hire my alumni if it weren’t for remote work.

Job: That's great, thank you so much for being on today, Lorraine.

Lorraine: Thank you so much, it's such a pleasure to be with you here.

Job: Likewise.

Job: Thank you so much to Lorraine for the truly important work you are doing and for sharing so much on the show today. I loved hearing about the success of placing refugees at companies like Meta and the impact that has on the greater community they live in.

And that wraps up episode three of Off Mute. We're back in a fortnight with Episode 4. Please subscribe to the podcast and give us five stars if you'd like what you've heard. Thanks for listening to Off Mute, I’ll catch you next time.

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