This article is a collaboration between RealClearInvestigations and the Columbia Journalism School.
Like many refugees new to America, Akram Hussein, an Iraqi computer engineer, held romantic ideas about life in a country where citizens are guaranteed so many rights and freedoms. He knew less about the strong traditions of self-reliance in America.
“I imagined my life would be easier, and that I would have enough time to work, learn English, develop myself,” Hussein said. But he quickly learned that time – especially the time necessary to translate his education and qualifications into an American job – was a rare commodity in his new country.
It is a lesson familiar to the more than 3 million refugees who have fled persecution, war and violence in their native lands and settled in the United States since 1975, when it began its resettlement program in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Since October 2016, 45,732 refugees have been resettled here, the majority from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Syria, and Somalia.
Though they are only a fraction of the 21.3 million refugees worldwide — many of whom are displaced in neighboring countries — the United States remains the top country for refugee resettlement, followed by Canada and Australia.
Such political refugees -- separate from other immigrants -- are selected and vetted through a rigorous process of interviews and screenings by United Nations and U.S. officials. They enter the United States legally with the right to work and a path to citizenship. They bring a diverse set of skills, certifications, and degrees from their home countries. They have been carpenters, electricians, doctors, and professors. Some have earned master’s degrees and PhD’s, while others have little to no education.
Yet even without current disputes over new arrivals, they all face similar challenges when starting a new life in America. Adjusting to a new language, set of cultural expectations, and work ethic makes it hard for many refugees, no matter their level, to find a job they’re passionate about.
And there is so little time, many say.
Resettlement agencies help refugees secure housing and look for jobs in the first few months. But State Department refugee assistance is designed to last only 90 days, with some exceptions. Refugees are generally expected to support themselves thereafter. While Canada and Australia take in fewer refugees annually, government-funded assistance lasts longer — up to a year in both countries.
Refugees are not completely on their own here. In addition to family and refugee networks, they are aided by a small but growing system of religious groups and other agencies – some of which report increased support since Donald Trump’s election.
Such organizations include Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS), a resettlement agency in New Haven, Conn., and Global Talent Idaho.
Lisa Cooper, an investment management professional who started Global Talent Idaho and works closely with the refugee community in Boise, Idaho, said the tendency to view refugees as charity cases can hurt their chances of landing competitive jobs.
“People look at refugees and want to give them a job,” said Cooper. “But sometimes compassion gets in the way of respect, so that people are not seen for their skills and talents -- they are seen as refugees first.”
In fact, escaping the refugee identity may be impossible in the initial job search. Refugees looking for a first job may encounter language barriers or lack of credentials to pursue the profession they worked in back home. The skill most often cited by resettlement agencies as critical for refugees seeking employment is English.
“Language is the key to everything,” said Danny Stone, who works as an English teacher and employment specialist at IRIS.
Anthropologist Jill Koyama, who studied resettlement agencies near Buffalo, N.Y., in 2011, said agencies can only go so far to help their clients find skills-appropriate jobs, particularly if they arrive with little English. “They are pretty effective in placing refugees in really low-level, low-wage jobs, where not a lot of English is needed.”
Koyama said that many refugees she observed were placed in jobs where their skills were underused, in part because there was a demand in the area for low-wage labor.
“For some of the refugees it was their first job outside the home,” said Koyama. “But some had been doctors and engineers in their own countries, and now they were cleaning hotels.”
Akram Hussein can relate to that. Before he became a refugee, he had recently finished his master’s in computer science at Istanbul University, after studying first at the University of Mosul in his hometown in Iraq. But while in Turkey, he learned he could not go home again; sectarian violence there was too dangerous. He applied for refugee status with the U.N. Refugee Agency, and was finally told he could be resettled in the United States in 2012.
When he arrived in Connecticut, Hussein worked on an assembly line at two different factories in New Haven and Fairfield. Although he tried to get jobs related to his education, he realized that few employers would recognize his master’s degree. After discussions with friends and sponsors, he decided to go back to school and get another master’s degree in computer science, this time at the University of New Haven.
It’s no surprise that many refugees in Hussein’s situation consider going back to school. Jeanne Batalova, who has studied the issue of “brain waste” for the Migration Policy Institute, said that licensing boards and agencies often don’t recognize foreign education experience. “A degree from the U.S. is sort of a stamp of approval, and it’s just much easier for immigrants to get jobs that align with their experience,” she said.
Hussein had never had to pay for his education before and knew that going back to school in the United States would be a big financial risk. But he reasoned: “If you see you are going to work in a factory your whole life, you take the risk.”
After finishing his degree at the University of New Haven in 2016, Hussein applied for a job at IRIS, where he’s been working as a case manager for a year and a half. It’s not the field he studied, but he still considers himself lucky. He’s seen his clients struggle to find fulfilling employment, especially those who must support a family. “They need to work," he said. "And it’s hard for some that have family responsibilities. Most ... are just hoping for their children to have a good future.”
Richard Naing encountered similar challenges when he arrived in Boise as a refugee in 2013. After fleeing Myanmar (formerly Burma) in 2008, where he had received threats from the junta, Myanmar’s military rulers, Naing lived in Malaysia for five years before coming to America. He had a degree in civil engineering from a university in Burma and had worked as a computer technician in Malaysia. While the International Rescue Committee in Boise helped him write his résumé and look for jobs, Naing spoke little English and was only able to secure a position as a hotel housekeeper.
Naing said the pressure to start working right away was strong. “I had to find a job within three months when I first arrived,” he remembered. “It was very stressful.”
To improve his chances of securing a better job, Naing started working with Global Talent Idaho, the organization Lisa Cooper co-founded in 2014. Previously, as a volunteer with resettlement agencies in Boise, she noticed that clients arriving with backgrounds in fields such as medicine, teaching, or finance weren’t finding work with companies that realized their full potential.
“All of that training, that education, those skills, was being lost,” said Cooper. With Global Talent Idaho, Cooper sought to match highly skilled refugees seeking jobs with employers in the area, as well as help them learn some of the soft skills needed to succeed in an American workplace. What comes as second nature to Westerners seeking employment — such as a handshake or making eye contact with employers — is not always obvious to refugees.
Today, Global Talent Idaho has trained nearly 200 job seekers from more than 36 countries, with an 86 percent placement rate for those who complete the training. With the help of the organization, Naing said he learned to “communicate and function in an American office.” He left his job at the hotel after seven months to work for Micron, a technology company, before being hired as an investment research associate at Figure 8 Investment Strategies, a firm that Cooper started after her success with Global Talent Idaho. Cooper has made hiring refugees a priority.
“We’re a really new firm, and we’ve sort of set out to prove something,” said Cooper, who has welcomed four full-time refugee and immigrant hires. Among her goals is to demonstrate “that a small business that’s founded on this idea of inclusion, and tapping into the unique values [of] people coming in from other countries, can thrive.”
Cultural, educational and linguistic hurdles aside, the geographic politics of resettlement are tough too. Refugees face scrutiny when seeking jobs, particularly if they’ve been resettled in small towns struggling economically.
“The good jobs we do have in Rutland, refugees are ill-suited for,” said Wendy Wilton, the treasurer of Rutland, Vt., a rural town that was strongly divided on the issue of refugees after former mayor Christopher Louras proposed a now-defunct plan to resettle 100 individuals earlier this year.
“Even if somebody was a nurse in Syria, I doubt they have the credentials to pass our nursing boards in the United States,” Wilton said. She also noted that many communities don’t have the social services resources to provide for these new immigrants. “After the resettlement agency is done with these people, they dump them on the community.”
Kiyan Bakhtiari, a supervisor at a natural stone wholesaler in Woodbridge, Conn., who has hired some IRIS clients, feels differently. “These people come here for a better life, so they’re willing to work for that,” he said. “They don’t fool around.”
While the American dream is alluring, many new immigrants find it is not so easy to achieve. They appreciate their newfound safety, freedom and opportunity. But they also feel profound displacement from lives where most people were content with relatively little.
One with such longings is Mahadid Mongolare, who recently came to New Haven from Uganda after leaving the Democratic Republic of Congo as a young boy. “The way people live their life back home is simple,” he said. “People don’t have much, but they have peace of mind.”
Akram Hussein confesses to similar sentiments. “Since I was little I was hoping to go to another country,” he said. “It’s not only about the war, or safety. Growing up under a dictator, you didn’t have a lot of chances. You start to think that you want to go somewhere else.”
But now, even as fierce fighting rages in his hometown, he recalls Mosul with a sweet nostalgia. “I miss the simplicity of the people and the city.”