March 8, 2022

Remote Internships: Refugee and vulnerable youth gain work experience

New, remote internship programme matches refugee and vulnerable youth living in the Middle East to valuable 3-6 month work experience opportunities within national and international companies.

“There are so many talented young people in the Middle East with exceptional skills but no job opportunities,” says Shawki Alghandour. At 24, he moved from Syria to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. With a Bachelor degree in English Literature, he spent a year searching for a job but was faced with rising youth unemployment levels in the region. 

Throughout Iraq, pandemic-related job losses and shrinking employment opportunities have resulted in a spike in unemployment, from 12.76 percent in 2019 to 13.74 percent in 2020, according to World Bank data. Globally, remote working has become a norm for many workplaces. Despite some drawbacks, overall employers and employees have experienced multiple, mutual benefits. From cost savings on travel and office rent, to greater quality of life and even increases in productivity. For young people living in places with few job opportunities, remote working has opened up new job markets to them. 

In 2020, a small pilot programme was initiated to support struggling, ​​young job seekers gain work experience. Co-financed by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Islamic Development Bank (IsDB), Islamic Solidarity Fund for Development (ISFD) through the Tadamon programme, and the Dutch Postcode Lottery, the programme matches youth to remote-working internships within Iraqi and international companies.

Once an intern himself, Shawki is now coordinating the placement of remote-based interns into national and international companies. © 2022, SPARK

Shawki, digital marketing intern

Shawki Alghandour, who lives in Erbil in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KR-I), was looking for an opportunity to gain work experience when he was placed in a remote-working internship at a Baghdad-based digital marketing agency. “For a young Syrian refugee in Iraq, it is amazing to be part of giant international companies.”

During Shawki’s remote internship, he was responsible for content creation and learnt new digital skills. After enjoying his experience with the programme, he became an internship coordinator, supporting other job seekers to find their first career opportunity. 

SPARK co-designed the remote internship programme alongside The Station, a leading Iraqi coworking non-profit, and Kiron, a higher education NGO operating throughout the Middle East. Companies from across the Middle East, Europe, Singapore, the USA and the UK have joined the programme, welcoming skilled Iraqi and Syrian youth to their digital teams within 3-6 month, remote-based internships in digital media, mental healthcare and consulting sectors.

“As a former digital intern, I know that companies ask for work-ready employees but an internship is also a learning process for interns. My role is to meet with companies and convince them that this is an experience sharing process,” Shawki notes. 

After assessing the needs of companies, SPARK and its partners carefully match interns to relevant positions within local or international companies. For those interns without access to laptops or stable internet, computers are provided and financial stipends for more than 50 interns in Iraq enable them to purchase data when needed.

“I felt so happy and excited to work as a digital intern, because I want to learn new things and meet new people” © 2022, SPARK

Baha, web design intern

Baha Ammo, a young Syrian man moved to Sulaymaniyah, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq when he finished high school in his home country. With a scholarship from SPARK, he completed his university studies but due to the challenging job market and lack of experience, Baha was finding it difficult to get a job relevant to his skills. 

He was placed in a remote internship at the Saba Centre for Studies and Human Development as a web designer where he created advertising campaigns and a website for the centre. “I felt so happy and excited to work as a digital intern, because I want to learn new things and meet new people”, Baha says. 

“SPARK gave me training on how to develop a website and followed up regularly on my internship. I felt reassured”, he notes. “In the beginning, I thought that remote work wouldn’t suit me. After a few months as a digital intern, my view has completely changed. Now, I am able to connect with people online and complete my tasks without being in the office.”

Rama, digital media intern

Rama Labbad, a young woman from KR-I, worked as a Kurdish-English translator and language teacher for three years. After losing her job during the pandemic, she found it difficult to secure employment despite her outstanding language and IT skills. Through the remote internship programme she was matched to a remote position at Fanack, an independent media organisation focused on the Middle East and North Africa based in The Netherlands.

“This internship gives me the opportunity to apply my theoretical knowledge”, Rama says. She learnt a lot of new digital skills, such as publishing content on WordPress. “Apart from the learning aspect, I truly enjoy being part of an international team with people from Europe and Africa. My next meeting will be about pitching new ideas for the website, which makes me very excited”, she adds.

The impact of the pilot programme has been promising. A report by Catalyst Consulting on the pilot internship programme found that 88.2 percent of the participants believed their internships made them stronger candidates. In Iraq so far, 16 percent of interns have been hired by their internship employers or found another job or internship within 3 months of completing their remote internship. 

The pilot programme has recently expanded to Lebanon, where 41 interns from Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinanian backgrounds have successfully completed their internships and over 50 percent of those have been offered further employment.