Mohammed Hakmi struggles to remember the last time he celebrated his birthday.

Thinking back, it would have been before 2011, when bullets rained down on a crowded Clock Tower Square in Homs, Syria, within earshot of his home.

It would have been before a rocket slammed into the engineering building at Al-Baath University later that year, as he and 25 classmates wrote a math exam in the adjacent building.

It was definitely before Hakmi fled with his family across the Lebanese border to Beirut, where he would spend the next eight years writing educational software for half the going pay rate due to his refugee status.

“Most of those years, my birthday passed like any other normal day,” says Hakmi, who turns 27 today. “But this year is special for me, because it’s my new life, new country, new job, new future.”

That future is unfolding here in Kitchener, where Hakmi starts work Tuesday at Bonfire, a fast-growing procurement software company in the bustling Tannery complex.

Waterloo Region is a long way from Beirut and, for Hakmi, feels even farther from Homs, a 2,000-year-old city whose historic centre was pounded into rubble by nearly a decade of civil war. Now, thanks to Bonfire and a Washington, D.C.-based agency called Talent Beyond Boundaries, Hakmi not only has a chance to rebuild his life, but to pursue his life’s work: building software, a passion that took hold when he was 12 years old and never let go.

I don’t remember everything or even the majority of my history as a child,” he says, “but I always remember that I was attracted to this device, the computer.”

Hakmi’s achievement in landing relevant work in a Western country provides a welcome counter-narrative to the familiar refugee story, in which people who were doctors, lawyers and engineers in their home countries have to settle for low-paid, menial work in their adoptive ones.

Mohammed Hakmi in Bonfire's office

Mohammed Hakmi at Bonfire’s Kitchener office (Communitech photo: Anthony Reinhart)

Holding the pen on that counter-narrative is Talent Beyond Boundaries, a three-year-old agency that has built a large and growing talent pool of refugees with skills in a range of sought-after fields, including software development. The agency’s mission goes beyond basic resettlement and helps place refugees in quality, high-demand jobs around the world.

Bonfire connected with TBB early last year through Omar Salaymeh, Bonfire's Executive Director of Client Success. A former refugee himself, Salaymeh co-founded the Refugee Career Jumpstart Project, which helps find work for refugees who are already in Canada. Through Jumpstart, he met Dana Wagner, TBB’s Toronto-based partnerships advisor.

Meanwhile, in Beirut, Hakmi saw a Facebook post about TBB and decided to reach out. He was eventually put on a shortlist of candidates for a role at Bonfire, whose then-new Director of Engineering, Kris Braun, was tasked with sifting through the applicants.

It was a task Braun was happy to take on when he joined Bonfire last February, having made a point of asking the company’s CTO and co-founder Alex Millar, during his own job interview, about Bonfire’s approach to diversity in hiring.

“‘[Millar] talked about the partnership with Talent Beyond Boundaries,” Braun recalls. “On my first day on the job I was already going through the candidate profiles and thinking about how we would begin to move the hiring program forward.”

There were multiple skilled candidates and it was not a given that Hakmi would get the job. That is, until Bonfire’s engineering team issued a coding challenge to the shortlisted applicants.

“Part of our dev hiring process is having people write code,” Braun says. “It’s less of a technical challenge and it’s more like a showpiece – show us your skills, show us what you can do. It’s open-ended; build something and then demo it for us and pull up the code.”

Hakmi, having learned that Bonfire developers often used a JavaScript-based coding platform called Angular, decided to follow suit. The fact that he hadn’t used Angular before didn’t deter him.

With time at a premium given work obligations in Beirut, he coded the project over a weekend, starting on Saturday and sleeping three or four hours before he finished on Sunday.

“This was an amazing experience for me, and it was challenging,” Hakmi says, adding that he used a few other unfamiliar dev tools for his project.

His effort wasn’t lost on the Bonfire team, who reviewed Hakmi’s code with him during a web conference.

“All of those things were quite impressive across a slate of candidates, regardless of where they would come from,” Braun says. “Two things really stood out to me. One is, that moment of being in the code with Mohammed felt 100 per cent like every other dev interview; all of a sudden it was common language. We all spoke JavaScript.

“You could even see the other people on the engineering team light up because we all knew how to engage; we knew how to talk about whether this was good code or bad code. It was absolutely our common language.”

Braun was also assured by Hakmi’s inherent “geekiness,” clearly evident in his zeal for the minutiae of coding tools and techniques.

“It’s just such a good sign of intrinsic passion for technology,” Braun says. “And you don’t find that universally in candidates. In fact, amongst a certain generation of candidates, there is a little more of a sense of ‘what can you do for me,’ ‘I’ve got five offers; what are you going to do that gets me to take your offer.’

“And so, before we’re talking about anything else, we’re talking about, ‘Wow, this is really cool that Firebase can write this serverless system; that you were able to do full-text search through Algolia,’ Braun says, referencing the dev tools Hakmi deployed.

Hakmi said the exercise was “the most joyful project I ever worked on” simply due to the immediate connection he felt with the Bonfire team, a bond drawn tighter by their shared technical language.

“For Mohammed to have a new life, it’s not just about what country he’s in; it’s him being able to do his best work and be a valuable contributor.”

“At the beginning we started by introducing ourselves and talking about general stuff,” he recalls, “but when we started talking in code, I felt that I’m so comfortable with that; this is the easiest part of the interview.”

From the perspective of Braun and his team, Hakmi’s obvious competence made him a great hire irrespective of his refugee status – which is, perhaps, the genius of a program like Talent Beyond Boundaries. It shifts the focus of the refugee conversation from charity to skills, and the dignity that people gain when given a chance to apply them.

“There is that mindset where we only think about refugees as a population in need,” and merely making it to Canada as mission accomplished, Braun says. “[But] the work that you do is a huge part of your life and a huge part of rebuilding your life. For Mohammed to have a new life, it’s not just about what country he’s in; it’s him being able to do his best work and be a valuable contributor. So, why don’t we make those matches ahead of time and settle people in places where there is a role waiting for them?”

With an estimated 22.5 million refugees in the world, that’s a lot of lives to rebuild – and, among them, a lot of skills going untapped. That’s why, Braun says, Bonfire hopes Hakmi’s hire is just the beginning.

“This is not a one-time thing. This is part of how we think about ourselves as an employer,” he says, adding that he’d like to help other Waterloo Region tech companies do the same.

“When you look at the magnitude of the refugee crisis, at the number of people displaced by conflict ... Mohammed is one of many people, and to have an impact as a region I think we need to be thinking about multiple companies hiring multiple people,” Braun says.

For his part, Hakmi is beyond thrilled with the opportunity now in front of him, the roots of which stretch back to the early 2000s in Homs. That’s when his parents bought a home computer to help his sister, an English literature student, with her research.

“When she was done with the computer, I would go to her room and start exploring this device,” Hakmi says, recalling the IBM PC with 128 megabytes of RAM, 80-gigabyte hard drive and a chunky, 15-inch CRT monitor. “The first time that I sat behind the screen of the computer, I was attracted to the icons on the desktop and felt something that attracted me to explore more about it.”

The computer ran on Microsoft Windows ME (Millennium Edition), successor to Windows 98, and Hakmi had his first dev experience with a program called Multimedia Builder. “My first challenge was to set my name on the title bar,” he says.

His obsession grew from there, inevitably leading his parents to admonish him for spending too much time at the computer – much of it late at night after the rest of his family had gone to sleep. When his grades started to suffer, “I was sent to my room [for two weeks] and didn’t get out of it except for eating” and other necessities, he recalls.

Once he reached high school, Hakmi doubled down on computers despite his parents’ desire for him to pursue a scientific specialty. In a first for public schools in Homs, he and a friend built a web-based news and communication platform for their school. The work paid off: By the time he graduated, he was ranked fifth among the city’s high school students in computer proficiency.

“This war, for me, not just destroyed the buildings. It destroyed my dreams. It destroyed my life, nearly.”

This assured Hakmi’s entry to Al-Baath University’s information technology program, along with part-time work helping bookstores in Homs with their IT. He started to dream of one day starting his own dev shop, since Homs had so few of them.

Everything changed in the spring of 2011, when Syria’s spreading internal crisis reached Homs.

“After the war started in Syria, I didn’t get the time to think about what I wanted to do in the future,” Hakmi says. “This war, for me, not just destroyed the buildings. It destroyed my dreams. It destroyed my life, nearly. I was only thinking about tomorrow – how I would get money to help my family, to buy food for the next month.”

The next month stretched into years after the family fled to Beirut. Hakmi and his brother went first. Their parents joined later; their father was retired but their mother continued to travel between Beirut and Homs during the hostilities, where she taught Grade 1. She retired in 2014 and their father died of natural causes that same year.

After fleeing Homs, Hakmi returned only once, around 2015, for a couple of days. The scale of devastation was difficult to comprehend.

“Everything was different. Everything was changed. I grew up in that city and I felt like a foreigner,” he says. “Everything was mostly destroyed. Everything.”

Now, with the year-long process of moving to Canada complete, Hakmi is less than two weeks into the rebuilding process.

So far, so good.

“When I came here to the office and I saw how the people here are so kind and welcoming, all that gave me a special feeling, just like home,” he says.

Hakmi is staying in an Airbnb in central Kitchener, arranged by Bonfire, while he looks for an apartment. He’s also been exploring his new city, which has already yielded some pleasant surprises: Last week, at the Hasty Market near the downtown Kitchener transit terminal, Hakmi found a bag of Derby potato chips – a humble but popular Syrian snack food he hadn’t seen since Homs.

But the real rebuilding begins tomorrow, when he reports for his first full day of work.

“I’m so excited to have my first day here; to sit in front of my computer, start coding and take my first task,” Hakmi says.

“You know, it’s a dream, and it’s happening now.”