LSS helps refugees secure jobs
Kawa Hawari goes to work every day and meets with people from all over the world. He listens to these peoples’ stories about their families, friends, future aspirations, the journey to the United States, and past work experience. He works with people just like him, refugees, people who have packed up everything they own, traveled half way across the world, and left behind the only life they have ever known. They are beginning again.
Hawari is an employment specialist at Lutheran Social Services and he, along with his coworkers, helps make the process of resettling in the Fargo-Moorhead area a bit easier.
This past year, about 400 refugees resettled in the Fargo-Moorhead area. The number of refugees coming to the area has only increased as time progressed. Back in 2008, there were about 60 refugees resettled to the FM area. Two years later, that number jumped to nearly 170 refugees. LSS of North Dakota is a statewide social ministry helping to provide nonprofit housing, food, and other necessities to those in need, specifically New Americans. One service that is readily available is that of finding employment.
Hasta Basnet, a coworker of Hawari and also an employment specialist, went through the process that he has helped so many New Americans go through.
Basnet was born in Bhutan and at the age of five moved to Nepal, where he spent the next 20 years in a refugee camp. In the camp, he attended secondary school until the 10th grade. From there he spent four years at a college in Nepal studying business. Basnet’s brother got a job working in the camp and paid Basnet’s way through college.
Like most college students, Basnet changed his mind about his chosen career path. He went into the medical field and completed two years of medical assistant training. Once his training was complete, he went to work in the camp’s medical laboratory.
The realities of U.S. life
What Basnet didn’t know was that he would be leaving behind his job in the medical field when he came to America. The qualification to work in the medical field in Nepal didn’t quite match up with those of the United States, so Basnet figured he would go back to school for medicine when he came here. It would be harder than he had thought seeing as he had not only himself to care for, but his father, mother, wife and brother as well.
“When I came to the U.S., I found the reality was different,” Basnet said. “I have to pay rent and utilities and everything and I cannot do that going to college. I’m the one supporting my family so I cannot say I want to go to college and have my mom who is 70 years old go and work and pay the rent.”
Basnet ended up being one Hawari’s clients when he arrived in Fargo. One month later, Basnet got his first job as an interpreter at LSS. There was no one else in the position at the time, giving Basnet a full plate at work. This heavy workload helped him climb his way back up the ladder.
“I was doing pretty much everything before,” Basnet said. “I was helping with job development and going out and meeting with employer and doing interpretation, translating documents and then they hired me as employment specialist.”
While Basnet has a wide range of professional experience in his background, Hawari has little. Hawari arrived in the United State in 1991 from Iraq. Back home he was involved in the same line of work as he is now with LSS, helping place people into jobs, getting them on their feet. For Hawari, it was a fairly smooth transition from the job he had back home to the job in the United States, but for others, it’s rougher. That’s where the LSS employment specialist come in.
According to Hawari, the employment specialists are assigned cases— families that they work with to help them find some sort of work. Before the employment specialist can even think about setting up New Americans with a job, there need to be jobs available.
“We have a handful employers that we have relationships and there is a trust,” Hawari said. “They pick up the phone.”
Those employers includeHilton Garden Inn, Hornbackers, Olive Garden, Wal-Mart, Small Wonders Daycare and Preschool, Sam’s Club and many others. While they have good relationships now, some companies haven’t always had the best relationship with LSS.
Building trusting relationships
Hawari recalls when LSS was in the process of building a relationship with Sanford Health. As many would expect, the hiring manager was reluctant about hiring New Americans. He didn’t know much about New Americans’ work ethics, behaviors, cultures or backgrounds, but after a few initial hires and much conversation, the hiring manager gained more knowledge and witnessed how hard the New Americans work. Thus the slightest glimmer of a relationship was built, leaving Sanford employees to fill positions like Environmental Service workers, team leaders and certified nursing assistants.
“When we approach and start building a relationship they start hiring maybe four, five people,” Hawari said. “Now there are about 120 of our clients working there.”
The relationship between Sanford and LSS is still flourishing.
“They just call us and say ‘hey, I need four people’ we say, ‘okay, today or tomorrow’,” Hawari said. “Then that’s when they increase their hiring [of New Americans] from five to nearly 120.”
Such relationships have been formed with countless of other companies, providing more and more opportunities for work to New Americans. Employers have seen the type of work ethic that the New Americans have and see that they can be reliable employees.
“When they hire from us they know that people are showing up for work, listening, they are not just there,” Hawari said. “They are not opinionated, they listen to their supervisor and they pay attention to the job. They don’t quit so the company has less turnovers and they really don’t have to advertise their jobs.”
With relationships formed between companies, New Americans are able to go to LSS and seek help for their job search.
They can’t jump right into a job right after getting off the plane, though. According to Hawari, the New Americans have to go through an orientation—learning the basics of employment, transportation, English language, school and many other parts of the United States culture that differ from the refugee’s. The orientation is also open to the public and is an overview of every service that is provided by LSS.
Once New Americans have completed orientation and become properly registered with LSS, the process speeds up. The newly arrived families attend English classes, are set up with doctors’ appointments and go through all the essential paperwork. After about 30 days, the whirlwind of settling in and paperwork begins to die down and they are ready to work— or wait to work, depending on job availability and waiting list spots.
According to Basnet, the employment specialists work off a list of clients and try to match the New Americans the best they can. Barnet and Hawari take into consideration the New Americans’ education, previous work, background culture, ethnicity and a variety of other qualifications. They go through the process to make sure the work environment is the best for the New Americans.
“Sometimes finding a job might be hard,” Basnet said. “Two Somalians working in the business if we put one Iraqi-an they might not have a good communication. We also look in that sense.”
Working around barriers
Language is one of the biggest barriers for the New Americans when first arriving. While they are taking English language classes, that isn’t enough to get them by in the work world. Once again, that is where LSS comes in to help.
Anytime someone takes on a new job, there is bound to be a pile of paperwork. Now try reading that paperwork in an unfamiliar language.
According to Hawari, once a client is hired they do everything they can to best accommodate the employee and the employer. An employment specialist takes the client to the job site, they fill out the application and once they are hired, if they are hired, any other additional paperwork or drug tests LSS does for them.
“Once they are hired if there are any hiring paperwork involved we will do it. Help them out,” Hawari said. “Plus if the persons English is not that good, we provide an interpreter for their job orientation.”
While LSS can’t constantly have an interpreter assigned to every New American at their job, they do try to accommodate for those language barriers in other ways.
“Let’s say there are Bhutanese, may have 50 Bhutanese working there,” Hawari explained. “Most likely thirty plus of them, they speak good English, that way they are coordinated among themselves.”
The employment specialists look at the clients that they have at certain job sites and if they speak good English, the specialists try and pair up those with less English with those who are a bit better. This eliminates the need for an interpreter and lets the workers help each other among themselves.
While language is one of the larger barriers the New Americans face when going through their transition, transportation can also be a factor.
“You have to get around,” Basnet said. “You have to ride the bus. Back home you can stop the bus anyway. You climb the bus anyway you like. Here you cannot. You have to be in the station. Just follow the bus map or follow the bus route.”
The bus is always an option, but if no one has taught the bus map and its route to the New Americans, it isn’t always the best option. For Basnet, walking to and from work was the better option for his job that he started in October.
“The snow. I mean I walked two miles every day to my work the first winter,” Basnet said.
Because Basnet was still in his beginning months in the States, he was still going to appointments for him and his family.
“I used to walk everyday three or four times…I used to finish that appointment, come back home for lunch then go back [to LSS] for the evenings or for the afternoons. I mean it was my first winter. I mean yeah I wasn’t dressed warm.”
Progressing and waiting
Just like Basnet, many New Americans come to the United States with career backgrounds in a number of things and expect that they can just continue where they left off when they get here. That isn’t the case.
“I mean some families that come to our program that might be millionaires back home, because of the situation, they came here and they expect the same thing,” Basnet said. “Some of them are doctors. Some of my clients they had engineering degree back home and they used to own a business back home and they had own homes back home and they were professionals but they can’t get here because of validity of certifications.”
The hard part is telling the client that it doesn’t work that way.
“We say the same thing to client and some of them say well, no,” Basnet said. “We found a job for them which will be an interpreting job and they will say, ‘well I don’t want that job because it’s a low job. I want a job. I want better paying job.’ You have to progress and then wait for the time.”
There will always be struggles for both New Americans and those who help with the transition.
“That’s tough,” Basnet said. “You know what, you take courage. Everything will be fine. It takes time. Nothing will come up like one after the other after the other. You have to wait for time.”
Because both Basnet and Hawari have gone through the process, they can reassure those currently going through it.
“The refugees, they come here and I know how to talk to them. I know how to listen to them,” Hawari said. “I know, relate to them. I relate to their issues so it just makes it very very smooth for them. I work with you. I sit down with you and listen to your issues. I just make it easier for you to move forward.”
At one point Basnet sat in front of Hawari, talking of struggles with the transition. Now Basnet can do the same for others.
“Employment with LSS, that has changed my life. I am so fortunate enough that I can meet with many new people, every time, every day,” Basnet said. “Making more connections and just helping the people to get something in the new life. I mean I struggled initially and I didn’t want them to struggle the same why I did.”
The employment specialists, at times, are more than just helping place the New Americans in jobs. They are an ear for listening and sometimes they just can’t help but get close with their clients.
“You know the families that helped their parents. I helped assist with jobs and now kids are almost graduating high school and headed into college,” Hawari said. “You know the families that are resettled now and they tell me, ‘I bought a house’ and I tell them I’ve been here for 20 years and still live in apartment. So that’s really nice.”
That list of 30 plus names of New Americans needing a job that sits on Hawari’s desk has its challenges, but none like those the refugees have faced and will continue to face in their transition.
This piece was completed for the Investigating and Narrating the News course where all students reported on refugee issues and stories in Fargo-Moorhead.