While there is much substantiating evidence to be found on the value of refugees to companies, there has been far less research conducted on the benefits of employment for refugees.
Every day, resettled individuals from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, South America, and all over Africa step into our Amplio offices looking for work. We have the honor and the joy of placing these individuals into what is, often, their first job in the U.S.
This opportunity gives us a front-row seat to the transformative nature of work, within the context of the refugee experience, in particular. With that being said, in this blog, we’ll be sharing largely from observation and experience.
Roots + Security
The first, and perhaps most underrated benefit of employment to refugees is the ability to put down strong roots, and regain a sense of security.
One of our team members in our Atlanta office, Bethelhem, came here from Ethiopia. She told us, “I had a friend who gave [my husband and me] a bedroom to stay in when we came. But I felt insecure because I didn’t have a job. Nothing was consistent. I didn’t know what was going to come tomorrow. I thought, I have to find a job so I can start my life.”
In that candid statement, Betty put a voice to the unspoken cry of many refugees when they enter our office— they are weary not so much from the loss they’ve endured, but from the resulting instability.
Resettlement, contrary to what one might think, is not an automatic end to this struggle. Rather, it is the beginning to that end. Now, there is the tedious job of rebuilding. Security is more than reliable income, or money in the bank— it is familiar, safe surroundings, friends you can count on, and a consistent place to lay down your head at the end of the day.
Before any refugee can rebuild their life, and begin to dream again, it is essential they put down roots. And establishing themselves in the American workplace is often one of the first.
The most obvious advantage of having a job (and probably the first benefit that popped into your mind when you read the title of this blog) is income.
Income serves as a vehicle to move refugees back to a state of self-sufficiency. Do not underestimate the power of independence. Without a job (or, even, a goodjob), any individual will remain in a perpetual state of relying on others for their needs. I’ve never met a refugee who wants to live like that.
Refugees need access to some public benefits when they arrive nearly empty-handed. The basic financial assistance refugees receive upon arrival is minimal, and the long term fiscal benefits far exceeds the short term costs. But while every refugee I’ve met is grateful for these services, what I’ve found is they desire opportunity more than anything.
It makes me think of the old saying, “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. But if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” Refugees aren’t looking for free fish. They are happy to earn them. And when they do, they are wise about leveraging those “fish” for a better life for themselves and their families.
Personal transportation is often a refugees’ first major investment. While they’ll do anything to get to work— walk, bike, carpool, and take public transportation— owning their own vehicle can be life-changing.
Another common investment is higher education. Many refugees, despite already having an education, head back to school in pursuit of skills that will help them attain higher-paying or, simply, more fulfilling employment. While grants are often available to help, some, if not all, of this expense comes out of their own pocket.
Many refugees are eager to leverage their funds to fulfill one of the great American dreams— homeownership. And many more use their hard-earned funds to fulfill the responsibility of helping family back in their home countries.
Every community has a culture, a way of life, and a certain set of social expectations that aren’t the same everywhere else.
I couldn’t reside with a tribe in South America and still use my credit cards.
I couldn’t move to England and continue to drive on the right side of the road.
And if I relocated to Afghanistan, I certainly couldn’t give a “thumbs up” anymore (learned this one by accident)!
To succeed in their new communities, refugees need to begin to get a feel for, and begin acclimating to, their surrounding culture. This happens by participation, not by hiding behind closed doors.
For many refugees, employment is a giant leap into the “pool” of American culture.
This is the catch-22 for many refugees: without marketable skills they cannot land a job, but without a job they have a harder time developing their skills.
We’ve already talked about how hungry refugees are to learn. Employment gives them the opportunity to act on that hunger, and begin accumulating skills. The majority of skills learned at work are not only useful for the job at hand, but will also be attractive to future employers.
Refugees have often suffered many unfathomable terrors in their lifetime.
While they say, “Time heals all wounds,” it is more accurately what you do with that time that heals. Believe it or not, work is healthy. Meaningful activity plays a huge part in ongoing mental health and healing.
With this propensity toward mental illness, instigated by their experiences, it is even more imperative that refugees re-enter the workforce quickly.
The stability of a job reduces anxiety, and provides space for refugees to begin the process of recovery. It’s hard to focus on healing when you don’t know where your next meal is going to come from. As Bethelhem in our Atlanta office once shared, “A good job is peace of mind.”
We started with the most obvious— security and income. Now we’ll end with one of the most overlooked, but highly meaningful aspects of having a job: dignity.
There is a clear connection between dignity and work. As Pope John Paul II put it, “man’s life is built up every day for work, from work it derives its specific dignity…” While every human being is innately worthy of love and respect, one’s ability to contribute to society (or not) can distort this truth.
As much as we long for vacations and joke about retiring, we need work, as an essential part of the human experience. Without work (paid or unpaid), individuals lose their sense of pride, and suffer from low self-esteem. Mandah Chimgeew, a refugee from East Asia, expressed, “As a refugee, I felt like people saw me as a beggar. Nobody saw me that way, but it was my mindset.”
Mandah was right. Nobody saw her as a beggar. But without a way to contribute, she saw herself that way.
Many refugees endure years of being unable to work (because of living in host countries), and relying on others to meet their needs, resulting in a palpable sense of shame. For them, the ability to work, be self-reliant, and give back to their communities serves an important function in restoring their lost dignity.
. . . . . . . .
The benefits of employment to refugees is just one of the many topics we expore in our upcoming book, “Refugee Workforce.” “Refugee Workforce” releases Fall 2019 and weaves real-life stories and statistics to present a strong case for hiring the displaced.
Visit the book website to learn more, sign up for email updates, or join the launch team.