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Iraqi refugees struggle to find work in jobs they left behind

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PHOENIX – Sarab Alani knew she had to leave Iraq after a 2003 terrorist bombing tore through the U.N. Special Commission’s Baghdad headquarters, where she worked as a database manager. Iraqis who worked in the office did so secretly, fearing they would be targeted as collaborators.

Worried that her secret was out after she was treated at a hospital, Alani fled to Kuwait and later to Jordan.

After insurgents murdered her brother in 2006, she returned to Iraq – at great risk – to rescue her three younger sisters and begin the journey that brought them to Phoenix as refugees.

Alani knew leaving meant a permanent break with her homeland and her extended family remaining in Iraq. She didn’t know it would mean losing the career she had built.

Unable to find work here designing databases, Alani initially accepted an $8-an-hour office job with a nonprofit agency. She exhausted her savings, allowing her sisters to spend more than a year seeking white-collar jobs similar to those they held in Iraq, as a legal assistant, network engineer and hospital lab technician. She was unwilling to see her sisters sacrifice their careers as she had to.

“I said, ‘No, I will not let this happen,’” Alani said.

Saad Ahmed fled Iraq with his wife and his grown children, two sons and a daughter, after receiving death threats for renting his Baghdad home to an American company. He left behind the appliance store that he owned and has yet to find work since arriving in Phoenix in 2009.

His sons, one a medical student and the other a computer engineer in Iraq, have worked at gas stations. His daughter, a medical school graduate, has sold shoes.

“The truth is,” Ahmed said, “it’s been hell.”

Since the U.S. began accepting Iraqi refugees in 2007, nearly 4,000 have been resettled in Arizona, ranking the state fourth behind California, Texas and Michigan, according to the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. Nearly 2,000 Iraqis refugees came to Phoenix.

Many are professionals – the Brookings Institution estimates that 40 percent of Iraq’s professionals have fled since the U.S. invaded in 2003 – trained in fields such as health care, computer science and engineering. Despite demand for their talent in Arizona, they often wind up in service-sector jobs because their certifications and experience aren’t recognized, their English is inadequate and their understanding of U.S. culture is limited.

That has led to frustration among refugees and the private groups whose mission is helping them rebuild their lives.

“We hear these stories of the doctor who’s a nanny or the lawyer who’s driving a cab – it’s a waste of human capital,” said Tadd Wamester, manager of strategic initiatives for Upwardly Global, a New York-based nonprofit agency that works with highly skilled refugees.

A Cronkite News Service review found that five states have initiatives facilitating recertification and providing career advice to help refugees with professional experience find comparable positions. In Arizona, where the Department of Economic Security works with four private organizations to resettle refugees, there is no such program.

The journey

In all, the U.S. has accepted about 54,000 Iraqi refugees since June 2007, following the outbreak of sectarian violence in 2006. In the fiscal year that ended in September, 16,047 Iraqis were admitted, including 903 who settled in Arizona.

For most, the journey begins in Jordan, Syria or Lebanon, where those who have fled Iraq in most cases aren’t authorized to work. Many apply for refugee status with the U.N. Refugee Agency and are resettled in the U.S. through a program overseen by the State Department.

Private resettlement agencies sponsor most of those who are admitted, providing a modest apartment with essential furnishings plus household and hygiene items and some clothing.

When refugees arrive in Arizona, caseworkers meet them at the airport and take them to their apartment with a hot, ready-to-eat meal. The following day, despite jet lag and disorientation, new arrivals have initial interviews with caseworkers to begin arranging financial assistance, school enrollment, English lessons and employment services, as well as social and medical services through DES for their first 90 days.

After that, refugees are expected to be self-sufficient.

The urgency of establishing an income means skilled refugees often must compete with other refugees and unskilled workers for low-wage jobs at convenience stores, retailers and restaurants.

Ahmed’s resettlement was through the International Rescue Committee’s Phoenix office, but he said didn’t get any employment help from his caseworker.

“We went there the first week, and after that we had no correspondence from them. That was it,” Ahmed said. “So my sons and I went to the laptop and figured out what we needed to do.”

Representatives of the International Rescue Committee didn’t respond to several phone calls seeking comment about Ahmed’s case.

Raed Alsafoo, who spent 25 years as a broadcast and print journalist in Iraq and fled when militants targeted members of the news media, recently found work as a dishwasher at Casino Arizona after arriving in 2009 with his wife and two children. He fears he’ll never be able to work as a journalist in the U.S. because he doesn’t have time for advanced English classes.

“We have to work to make money for our families. We haven’t the time to study,” he said. “The Arabs have large families, many children. It’s difficult to live here without jobs or money.”

Steve Meissner, public information officer for DES, acknowledged that because state and federal resettlement programs focus on immediate job placement and basic levels of self-sufficiency, resettlement agencies lack the resources to invest in placing people in positions that complement their abilities and education.

“They do have to learn new job skills and sometimes settle for a serious drop in level of prestige and economic standing in the local community,” Meissner said. “You come here as a college professor and end up working in a Wal-Mart – that’s a huge transition.”

Craig Thoreson, director of refugee and immigration services at the Phoenix office of Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest, said although he doesn’t know of an organization in Arizona that specifically assists the skilled-refugee population with job placement and recertification, case managers do work with refugees to put together individualized resettlement plans that include employment goals.

“Case managers will try to steer them in the right direction and try to give them what resources we have or are aware of, but a lot of it is going to be their initiative, of course. That’s part of the resettlement process.”

Beth Schlachter, public affairs officer for the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, said she understands that Iraqis are often well-educated professionals who expect to recreate their lives at the same level they had in Iraq.

“The fact that people need to start working immediately in order to support their families, which of course then complicates all the sort of remedial training that an individual person might have to take in order to get things moving forward, can be enormously frustrating,” Schlachter said.

Barriers to success

Alani moved from her first office job into a project-manager position with a resettlement agency. She still felt she wasn’t achieving her potential, however, so she set out to find an information-technology job comparable to that she held in Iraq in terms of responsibility, prestige and compensation.

She said the legacy of her late brother, Ammar, a renowned civil engineer, motivated her.

“He was so successful at his age, 32. He was wishing to have a baby and marriage and build more buildings. He thought one day he would be a great success – like Bill Gates – but they killed him,” Alani said. “One day I want some people to ask me, why am I doing all of this? I want to say that it’s because I’m his sister and he’s kind of not dead – and he’s still alive.”

Iraqi refugees in her position face considerable barriers due to cultural differences, professional recertification requirements and language limitations. In Alani’s case, early hurdles were learning how to create an effective resume and understanding the importance of networking.

The American-style resume isn’t common outside the U.S.; in Iraq, job seekers present potential employers with copies of transcripts and credentials.

Without a professional-looking resume or connections, Alani couldn’t get a first interview, she said. Only after she began seeking advice from her new American friends and paying nearly $1,000 to a resume consultant did she start getting offers.

“Here it is different; you have to say words more than show facts, and we don’t know what to say,” Alani said.

Ahmed, the former appliance store owner, studied electrical engineering at Queen Mary, University of London, and speaks fluent English, but he lacks an American credit history and employment record. He has accepted that he most likely will never work in his profession again and misses having a purpose every day.

“I used to go to my business in the morning and stay very late at night, and now I wake up at 2 o’clock in the afternoon because I have nothing to do except go shopping with my wife. That’s it,” Ahmed said.

His daughter, Sara Shihab, said her dad can’t see a brighter future for himself.

“To open his own store, he would need the finances and the resources,” Shihab said. “If he wanted to have a job in his profession, he would need to recertify his degree, and with his somewhat poor health, he wouldn’t have the time or the patience to pursue that.”

Helping themselves

Unlike her father, Shihab, 26, is pursuing recertification of her degree. She had just finished medical school when her family left Iraq. She worked in a hospital in Syria but has only been able to find one job here: selling shoes at Scottsdale Fashion Square.

She later was able to get a volunteer position in a hospital’s surgery waiting room but had to quit both positions when her family moved to Peoria. These days she keeps busy studying for her recertification exams.

Shihab said she received no guidance from the resettlement agency about recertification but rather learned about it through word-of-mouth and through a short-lived Facebook group of Iraqi doctors seeking recertification.

Barbara Klimek, a lecturer at Arizona State University’s School of Social Work and a former director of refugee resettlement for Catholic Charities in Phoenix, is familiar with the expectations for refugees – she came here as one from Poland – as well as the limits on what agencies can provide.

“Each agreed to the terms of the resettlement, which is based on self-sufficiency from the beginning. This fits into the American value system,” Klimek said. “But if we make the commitment to bring these people in in such large numbers, we have to support them.”

Klimek said mutual-assistance organizations, community groups often started by refugees from specific countries, provide an important network that should be tapped as a resource.

“They are simply trying to support and assist their countrymen,” Klimek said. “These refugees are those who have found success, who then volunteer their time to show them how things are done to help them succeed.”

Erkan Alkledar, founder of the Iraqi Community Center in Peoria, said a major barrier to stable employment is the lack of access to people who can help refugees navigate the intricacies of American culture.

Alkledar, who has a degree in chemical engineering from Iraq and worked for several years with Maricopa Skills Center, has worked closely with DES and the three voluntary resettlement agencies in Phoenix since 2000.

The nonprofit Iraqi Community Center helps refugees apply for housing, offers ESL classes, works with the Maricopa Skills Center to offer cultural and job-training programs and generally advocates for Iraqis, such as Ahmed’s family, when they are in need.

Alkledar said he has good relationships with the resettlement agencies and appreciates what they do to help but feels many of the refugees’ struggles would be avoided if agencies had better communication systems in place that continued after formal assistance ends.

“The Iraqi refugee community are highly educated people. At least 50 percent speak good English and graduated from universities,” Alkledar said. “But the only problem is because it’s a new culture and they don’t know what to do, they get kind of confused.”

Cultural differences

Often what seems obvious to Americans can be completely foreign to Iraqis. For example, Ahmed recalled the confusion he experienced as employees at DES and the resettlement agency set him up to access benefits through debit-card technology.

“They kept saying, ‘You need to select a PIN number. You need to select a PIN number,’” Ahmed said. “And I kept saying, ‘What does this mean? What’s a PIN number?’ They don’t explain.

“We don’t have plastic cards in Iraq. I had no idea what this meant.”

Alkledar said although agencies have useful information about low-income housing, health and social services and job hunting it’s often not provided to the refugees, and when it is, it’s not comprehensive.

Another obstacle, according to Alkledar, is that some caseworkers who are themselves refugees aren’t intimately familiar with the American process of job hunting and interviewing, making them not ideally qualified to advise others on it.

“How can he do that?” he said of refugee caseworkers. “Himself, he needs help.”

Alkledar, who also works as a cultural adviser for the Marines and earned citizenship by deploying with the military to Iraq, said facilitating communication between refugees, agencies and the outside community is key to developing important support systems that help make refugees self-sufficient.

“Seventy percent, 80 percent of the problems you can avoid by just talking. That’s it,” he said. “This is what the Iraqi person needs. Just talk with him, let him feel he’s safe. You don’t need to spend money.”

Schlachter, with the State Department, said the cultural orientation program offered to all refugees includes frank discussions about the complications of transferring one’s life from one country to another and how it’s often a generational process in terms of rebuilding one’s life and that of one’s family.

“It can be really difficult to hear that message, especially when you’re really hopeful and you understand what your own qualifications are,” Schlachter said. “It can be really hard to apply that message to yourself.”

What can be done

Seeing talent wasted because of the focus on helping refugees get any job quickly prompted a former resettlement agency executive to found Upwardly Global, a New York-based nonprofit that assists professionally trained refugees, asylum seekers and legal immigrants.

Its training programs assist with recertification but also teach clients through hands-on exercises how to craft effective resumes, negotiate job terms and interact in social settings such as cocktail parties, lunch interviews or networking events.

“Caseworkers can have over 100 cases at a time,” said Tadd Wamester, the group’s manager of strategic initiatives. “So they’re looking for mass placements – ‘Who can give jobs to 10 of my cases.’”

Nikki Cicerani, Upwardly Global’s executive director, said it’s a very sensitive thing to provide extra help to those who are coming from outside of this country when so many here are out of work. But she said getting the most out of refugees’ skills benefits the economy.

“It’s about additional revenue,” Cicerani said. “This is a one-time intervention to get them back into the professional work force.”

The kind of guidance offered through Upwardly Global remains elusive in Arizona but is gaining popularity in other resettlement communities.

A coalition of San Diego resettlement agencies recently asked for Upwardly Global’s assistance because of job-placement difficulties among the area’s large number of Iraqi refugees, well over half of them with advanced degrees, Cicerani said.

“We’ve had a lovely collaboration with some resettlement agencies because their typical services are not aligned with the particular needs of this population,” Cicerani said. “The State Department mandate for refugee resettlement is short-term-survival job metrics. There is no incentive to develop the capacity for the highly skilled worker who requires longer job training and a more sophisticated method of marketing oneself.”

Following a gubernatorial executive order that committed public money to integrating immigrants, Illinois sought Upwardly Global’s programming and expertise for a state-funded website, Careers for New Americans, that outlines the recertification process for 10 high-demand professions.

According to Jennifer Perez-Brennan, who monitors state policy initiatives for Upwardly Global, five states have gubernatorial executive orders to help skilled immigrants re-establish their careers: Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland and Washington. Illinois at one point committed $1.3 million to its initiative, and Maryland has a staffer dedicated to working with highly skilled immigrants on credentialing.

“We’re working to expand that to other states who are interested and are open to expanding it wherever there is interest,” Cicerani said.

Kevan Kaighn, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Economic Security, said DES wasn’t aware of Upwardly Global but would review its services.

At present, DES participates in a steering committee aimed at helping refugees and immigrants with retraining and recertification for health care positions, she said.

A first step

After three years of false starts, Sarab Alani’s determination to find a job finally paid off. She recently was hired for a long-term temporary database development position with Salt River Project. Nonetheless, she’s frustrated she lost so much time when she could have been working in her chosen field.

“I knew English when I came here. I worked with international companies – I worked with American people in the United Nations itself. To work with Americans was nothing new for me,” Alani said.

“When I came here, I suffered for three years just to get to this step, but this is just step zero. It took me three years, but finally I found how to find a job.”

Scott Weber, a senior technical recruiter for i-TEK Solutions, a Scottsdale-based IT staffing and recruitment agency, found Alani’s resume on Monster.com and was impressed with the work she had done with the U.N. in Iraq.

“She just stuck out. We had a difficult-to-fill position with a specific skill set, and Sarab had a well-written resume. She interviewed very well, she had all the skills we were looking for and it was an easy decision.”

Weber said he was unaware of the pool of skilled refugees or any networking organization that supports them. He had no issue with her work status or overseas work history.

“She has excellent communication skills as well as the knowledge and the technology skills,” he said. “An Access database is an Access database.”

The next generation

While the harsh realities of life as a refugee have made Ahmed ambivalent about his decision to come to the U.S., his daughter, Sara Shihab, said the children remain hopeful for their future. Their English is excellent – they credit years of watching “Friends” and “House” in Iraq – and they have established plans for their education.

Her brothers recently were accepted to the University of Arizona honors programs: Mazen, 23, for pre-computer science, and Ali, 25, to resume his medical training.

Interviewed at the gas station where he works, Ali Shihab said he accepts having to start over as a medical student even though he was one year shy of graduation in Iraq.

“Yes, it is a long commitment,” he said. “But it’s my life commitment.”

Although their father is worried about how the family will manage without the income his sons could earn from hourly jobs, Shihab says the move has been worth it to escape what they experienced in Iraq and to leave Syria, where they didn’t have full rights.

“When we came here, we felt like we were equal,” she said. “We’re going through financial problems, but I think we can get by. In a couple of years we’re going see things differently.”

Paying it forward

Inspired by her stuggle to find work in her profession, Alani has decided to start a nonprofit organization. She acquired the license of the now-closed refugee community group she first worked for when she arrived in Phoenix and plans to help women refugees with professional degrees as they seek parity employment, similar to a recruitment agency.

“I want to give a voice for these people,” Alani said. “Not only Iraqis, because I like people as humans, not as nationalities. There also are educated women here from Africa, from Burma, so we want to focus on all of them.”

She said she’s ready to focus on herself now because her sisters are finally working. One is a computer network engineer with Cisco and is pursuing a master’s in computer programming. Another has a degree in English from Iraq and is working as a legal assistant. The third sister recently married and has a baby son named Ammar, after his deceased uncle.

With her career on track, Alani said she’s starting to see the U.S. as home.

“It’s like the hard journey has ended,” Alani said. “Now I feel normal; I don’t feel like a refugee.”