How a philanthropist gave a new life to a man without a country
Fadi X has no new friends yet; he left all his old ones behind. Fadi X has no family left; they died years ago. Fadi X has no country, no nationality and no passport. Fadi X has no car, but that’s no big deal because he likes public transport. Though he is an attractive man, intelligent and gentle, with soft brown eyes and a good physique, Fadi X has no girlfriend. Until recently, he didn’t even have a proper name. Which is why for most of his life he has been known as Fadi X.
As calamitous as they have been, Fadi’s troubles all began with a bureaucratic oversight. His father, Hasan Moussa, had been a Syrian soldier stationed in the northern Lebanese village of Darbechtar in 1985, when he met his Lebanese mother, Hiam Chalouhy. The relationship was problematic: Hasan was Muslim, Hiam was Christian. No only that, but Hasan was part of an occupying force. (Syria invaded Lebanon in 1976, during the country’s civil war, and only withdrew its troops in 2005.) Nevertheless, Hasan and Hiam got married, and, in 1991, had Fadi.
In Lebanon, women cannot pass their citizenship down to their children; only Hasan could do that, but he never bothered to register Fadi’s birth. (As it happened, he hadn’t registered the marriage, either.) When, a year later, the relationship fell apart and Hasan disappeared, Fadi was left neither Lebanese or Syrian. He was, technically speaking, stateless.
Fadi’s first problem was education. “In Lebanon, education is considered extremely important, especially in the Christian community,” he tells me when we meet at his apartment, a plain, street-level two-bedder that he rents with a woman in Randwick, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. “But without identity papers, no school would take me.”
Luckily, Hiam worked as a cleaner at the local Catholic primary school in Darbechtar, where she negotiated with the nuns to let Fadi sit in on classes. Hiam cleaned the school after hours: not wanting to send Fadi home by himself, she would stash him in the library, where he would sit for hours, reading books in Arabic, French, English; fantasy books, history books, illustrated children’s language books. “Anything with a pretty cover, I read it.” Together with the Saturday morning TV cartoons, Fadi eventually became fluent in English and French.
Despite his lack of papers, a local Maronite Christian court pressured the government to grant Fadi permission to continue on to high school. The family had little money, but the school was free. Fadi had never particularly fitted in: he had been bullied for being the son of a Syrian soldier. But for his 12th birthday, a friend of Hiam’s gave Fadi an old PlayStation. Suddenly he could be anything he wanted: Spiderman, a soccer star, the “Fadinator”. “For the first time in my life I felt in control,” he says.
Fadi did well at school, and decided to study finance at the Lebanese University’s Tripoli branch, 40 minutes by bus from Darbechtar. “As long as I paid, the university didn’t care about my lack of papers,” he says. It cost 900,000 Lebanese pounds (then about $560) a year, which he earned by working for cash as a labourer, waiter or handyman. Fadi’s university card described him as having no last name, no known father or birth date, and “nationality unspecified”. At roadblocks, he became an object of suspicion: he was often stopped and interrogated, detained, locked up and abused, verbally and physically. “Once I had a tooth punched out,” he says. “There was nothing I could do. I didn’t even know there was a legal term for my situation.” (Hiam never remarried; she approached several people to adopt Fadi so he could assume their surname, but none of them agreed.)
The Kafkaesque nature of his predicament became most apparent after his graduation, in 2012. Though he emerged with a bachelor of finance and a master’s in financial engineering, his lack of identification meant he wasn’t legally allowed to work. After a time, he was employed, off the books, as a business analyst by a local software company, which paid him in cash. But he was prohibited from opening a bank account or getting a credit card. He couldn’t own property, get married or register the birth of a child in Lebanon. Nor could he apply for social security or insurance, or get a driver’s licence.
When his mother died, in 2016, her assets – including their home – could not be legally inherited by Fadi. (The house automatically went to Fadi’s uncles.) He asked the Lebanese authorities to issue him documents in his father’s name, but they would not help, as he couldn’t even prove he was Lebanese. “I realised then that I had no prospects in Lebanon,” he says. “So I started looking for options overseas.”
Fadi began emailing organisations around the world, asking for help: embassies, consulates, NGOs, companies, even celebrities. “I tried Oprah, Angelina Jolie, anyone associated with refugees or humanitarian cases,” he says. “I’d say the same thing: ‘This is my story, I am stateless, I recently lost my mother, and I have no one and no hope of gaining citizenship. I am stuck in this legal limbo, can someone help me?’ ” Fadi estimates he sent out more than 3000 emails in 2½ years. Less than 1 per cent responded (he never heard back from Oprah or Ange).
Then he was told about a not-for-profit group called Talent Beyond Boundaries (TBB). Founded in the US in 2015 by high-profile Washington lawyers and human rights advocates Mary Louise and Bruce Cohen and locally a year later by Australian philanthropist John Cameron, TBB connects refugees and stateless people to international job opportunities. It is the only organisation in the world to do this.
For the TBB team, getting Fadi out became a heartfelt mission. “He is a talented person who was in an impossible situation,” says Cameron, a former IT entrepreneur. Fadi’s credentials were exceptional: he was trilingual, resilient and demonstrably well qualified. After learning his story, two companies, global consulting giants McKinsey and Accenture, bid to take him on. In the end, after four rounds of interviews via Skype, Accenture offered Fadi a job in its Sydney office, as a management consultant. “That was one of the best days ever,” Fadi says. “I was overwhelmed with emotions.” After a brief stocktake, he went out for a drink.
Fadi was only the fourth person worldwide to be placed in a job by TBB. When he arrived at Sydney Airport, in March 2019, he was met by a welcoming party, including Cameron and a small team from Accenture. It was all caught on video (see link, from about 2:00): Fadi coming through the gates, pushing his luggage trolley, a little dazed but smiling widely. It’s difficult to tell who looks happier, Fadi X or John Cameron.
There are about 25.9 million refugees globally, and among them are many of the world’s 3.9 million-plus stateless people. Most of them are living in camps, or are in transit or subsisting on the margins of society. They have skills and talents that are going to waste. It’s plausible that, among the anonymous masses at refugee camps and aid centres worldwide, there is the next Steve Jobs or Stephen Hawking. But there is no way of knowing, because they have no opportunities.
“There is this enormous pool of talent there that has always been invisible,” says Cameron. “At the same time, there is a huge demand in places like Australia for skilled workers.” Getting those two groups in the same room, so to speak, seemed like “an obvious idea”, says Cameron. “We have to find ways to get more of these people out, because they don’t have time to wait.”
Cameron, who is 68, was born in Geelong. His parents were both actors; his father went on to become the head of TV drama at the ABC, and then general manager of the Australia Council. Their son also wanted to pursue acting, and attended the Sydney Actors School at the same time that Mel Gibson was at the National Institute of Dramatic Art. “We had some of the same teachers,” he says.
When the acting didn’t work out, Cameron went to the University of Sydney, where he studied computer science. Later, he worked as part of a small team that wrote the totalisator system for the Australian Jockey Club (now the Australian Turf Club). Then, in 1987, he helped computerise the Australian Stock Exchange. The ASX was only the second bourse in the world to be automated, after the Canadian stock exchange. “We were really hoping for a nice slow day of trading for the launch, but the system went live on the same day as the stockmarket crash,” he says. “It ended up being one of the busiest days ever, and it handled it.”
In 1997, Cameron found himself in England, contracting to Swiss Bank, later to become UBS, on its global computerised trading team. Electronic trading had been around since the early 1990s, but speed was becoming increasingly important. “Whoever could trade the fastest could make the most money,” Cameron says. One day, on his train commute from Cambridge to London, Cameron wrote the software for a new FIX, or financial information exchange, which allowed people to trade 100 times faster than before. “People thought there must be something wrong with it, it was so fast,” he says. By 2005, his software had become the world’s leading FIX. In 2006, he sold it to the Swedish firm Orc Software for $US32 million.
“When you hit the jackpot like that, and you’ve bought a new car and paid off the mortgage and gone on a holiday, you think, ‘What am I going to do with the rest of my life?’ Philanthropy is the natural option,” he says. “People who don’t do it are strange.”
Inspired by the likes of Bill Gates and Sidney Myer, Cameron set up the Cameron Foundation in 2006. It donates about $600,000 a year to a range of charities, primarily in the areas of health, education, human rights and disaster relief. Cameron was cognisant of the refugee crisis, but had always had a two-dimensional view of the problem. “In my ignorance, I’d always thought of a refugee as someone who was poor and of not much value.” In early 2016, however, at a small dinner in Melbourne set up by Amnesty International, he met a Kurdish man called Bassam, who was working on the Turkey-Syria border. “He was so impressive: educated, intelligent, eloquent and courageous,” says Cameron. “That totally flipped my view of what was possible.” In his previous business, Cameron had regularly employed programmers from overseas. “Now I thought, ‘Why can’t I do that same thing with people like Bassam?’ ”
There were three parts to the puzzle: identifying the skilled refugees, finding companies willing to employ them, and getting it all past government. The first thing Cameron did was approach groups such as the Red Cross, Oxfam and Save the Children, to which his foundation had made donations, and which had people on the ground, in refugee camps in places like Jordan and Lebanon, who could gather a database of talent. He then got in touch with Refugee Talent, a Sydney-based organisation that worked with companies to hire refugees who had already made it to Australia.
Then, in August 2016, he became aware of Americans Mary Louise and Bruce Cohen, a highly connected Washington DC-based couple who were working on a similar idea to Cameron’s. As it happened, the Cohens had already amassed a database of skilled refugees, but were having trouble with their software and IT. Cameron, of course, was the perfect person to fix it. In time, he and the Cohens decided to team up. Cameron had initially called his concept the Refugee Jobs Marketplace, but the Cohens had a much snappier name: Talent Beyond Boundaries.
In my ignorance, I’d always thought of a refugee as someone who was poor and of not much value.
In mid-2017, Cameron secured a 15-minute meeting with the then federal minister for social services, Christian Porter, who put him in touch with the then minister for immigration and border protection, Peter Dutton. “People had said to me, “Don’t waste your time [with the Coalition], you’ll have to wait for a change of government,” says Cameron.
But, much to Cameron’s surprise, Dutton approved the plan, on the spot, in the first meeting. “He got the idea straight away,” Cameron says. “He said, ‘How many visas do you need for the pilot?’ And I said I didn’t know, because I hadn’t prepared an answer for that, because I thought it wouldn’t get to that stage. So I said 10, and he said, ‘You want families, too?’ And we said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘Fine.’ And Dutton’s assistant was next to him saying, ‘Are you sure, Minister?’ ”
Dutton provided 10 humanitarian visas for use in special cases, together with the option of skilled visas, which offer temporary resident status initially, after which the applicants can apply for permanent residence. (“TBB does not exist just to steal places from the humanitarian quota,” Cameron says. “That’s pointless. TBB is all about creating a new additional pathway to get more people out.”) Cameron says the power of the idea is that it appeals to both sides of politics: to the left for its social justice mission, to the right for its private-sector approach. “This doesn’t cost the government anything,” he says. “When the refugees come out, they are paying tax from day one.”
TBB has so far placed 10 candidates, both here and overseas, including software engineers in Canada, the UK and Sydney, a construction engineer with John Holland in Melbourne, a butcher in regional Western Australia, a chef, a tool maker and an executive PA at Ernst & Young. Some moved countries with their families, others alone. They include Iraqis and Palestinians, but most are from Syria, where they fled the civil war.
“People say, ‘Refugees are coming and taking my job,’ ” Cameron says. “But no employer will hire internationally when they can hire around the corner. And the employers are not doing it out of charity. We actually say, ‘If you want to give to charity, then give to UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees].’ We don’t want them to hire anyone because they are refugees, because it won’t work.”
The results have been gratifying. At first, none of Fadi’s clients, which include the NBN, knew his background, and took his work on merit. “When we did tell them, there were tears all round,” says Jonathan Restarick of Accenture’s communications, media and technology team. “The thing with Fadi is that he’s been held back his entire life. He had never gone through a checkpoint and not been challenged. Now he just wants to learn and experience and develop.”
One of the first things Fadi noticed about Sydney was that the beaches are free. “In Beirut you have to pay to get access to the best beaches, about $US25 a day, so only the wealthy can do it.” He also loves the parks, the coastal walks, the restaurants, and the way he can go anywhere he wants and not be stopped by police and punched in the face. “Compared to Beirut, this is heaven,” he tells me.
We are standing in his apartment’s kitchen. It’s 7pm, and he’s just got home from work. “Sydney has good Lebanese food,” he says, making us a snack of flat bread and za’atar, a savoury dip made from za’atar herb mixed with sumac, salt, sesame seeds and olive oil. “There’s a spice shop around the corner that has everything.”
Fadi is religious; he’s found a Maronite church nearby – “an old one, very nostalgic” – that he sometimes drops into. He has also joined the local gym: he gets up at 4.30am to do two sessions, back-to-back, before heading to work. “I like it a lot,” he says. “The music is great and the instructors high-five you. There’s this thing called the Challenge, where different gyms compete with each other over eight weeks. At the end, you can win some money, and we all have drinks together. It’s like a little community.”
One day at work, he got an email inviting him to play in a social touch football competition. “When I saw the word ‘football’, I thought it was like what you call soccer. But then someone said to me, ‘No, it’s like rugby.’ ” Just yesterday he reached a personal landmark: after 30 matches, he finally scored a try.
When I ask Fadi if he would ever go back to Lebanon, he looks at me as if I’m crazy. “I spent 27½ years there. All my old friends have immigrated. There is nothing there for me now.” He says there are “lots of new things in Australia”, such as the fact he can get his driver’s licence and a credit card. “But the biggest change, and the best one, is my mentality. I am no longer trying to survive by attempting to avoid roadblocks or living pay cheque to pay cheque. Now I can plan for the future.”
For the next four years he will be on a temporary resident visa. After that he can apply for Australian citizenship, which will, among other things, allow him to make a claim on his mother’s house back in Lebanon. “No one is living there currently and I have the keys,” he says. “But if anyone decides to make a legal claim, I lose the house, since legally at the moment I am not recognised as my mother’s heir.”
More importantly, citizenship will allow him to change his name. When he arrived here, he was known on his laissez-passer, his Lebanese travel document, as Fadi Moussa. “They had to put a last name on my papers, so they used my father’s,” he says. “But that name means nothing to me.” (Fadi has never sought to find his father.) As soon as he is legally able to, he will take his mother’s surname: Chalouhy. “I’ll be accomplishing a lifetime dream of mine and my mother’s,” he says. “I will be fulfilled.”
To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.
Tim Elliott is a features and investigations journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald.