When Joyeuse Muhoza came to the U.S. as a refugee from the Congo, she was excited to be touching down in the land of opportunity just as she was reaching adulthood.
But reality quickly set in when she realized that her career journey would not take a straight line.
“I had a lot of passion. I had so many expectations, but everything came to a standstill when I realized that I had to start from scratch,” Ms. Muhoza said during a webinar on hiring strategies for diversity hosted by many Atlanta binational chambers of commerce.
Coming up on 18 years old, she couldn’t enroll in high school, and without a professional network or English fluency, her options were limited. Like many other refugees, she started by working in the poultry processing plants of north Georgia, transported over an hour each way every morning and evening. Once she finally landed a position as a restaurant cashier, she’d often hand customers the wrong menus.
“People would ask for vegetarian plates and I would give them sandwiches,” she said.
Now, she serves as a patient care assistant at Emory Healthcare, a testament to how dogged persistence can pay off with a little help from the resettlement services aiming to help refugees translate their experience into positions at local companies in dire need of dependable labor.
By the very nature of their fraught situations, when refugees and asylees arrive, their professional lives must be practically reset. A doctor or lawyer in Syria or an engineer in Afghanistan can’t easily parlay that experience into work in the U.S., especially given the language barrier and pressing survival needs that force many to take entry-level labor or service positions.
Lauren Bowden, career development coordinator at the International Rescue Committee, says they face other hurdles too: from institutional racism to gaps in their resumes, often from time spent living in camps.
The IRC, which operates in 40 countries and 25 cities including Atlanta since 1979, helps these fully documented workers burnish their resumes and find fitting roles.
Misconceptions about refugee workers abound, Ms. Bowden said. Some employers wrongly believe they’ll face the cost of sponsoring the worker’s visa or that they risk deportation. Others can’t decipher whether their credentials transfer to the U.S. And many wonder why they need help of the IRC if they’re so qualified in the first place.
“Our folks are absolutely applying online, they are absolutely talking to employers, they are hustling. They are really eager to rebuild their lives,” Ms. Bowden said. But often they’re locked out of consideration: some online reference requests don’t allow foreign addresses, and at times, organizations that can provide them don’t exist anymore due to the turmoil in their countries.
Ahmad Ibrahimi knows the feeling. Trained in logistics back in Afghanistan, he arrived in the U.S. without a sense for how to build his network.
“I applied for almost 400 jobs online, and they were calling me for the interview. When I arrived at the interview, they’d say, ‘Hey we changed our minds. You don’t have the American experience and there might be a language barrier.’”
He finally found a warehouse job and worked a year there before getting connected with the IRC, where Ms. Bowden and her team fixed his resume and introduced him to local companies. Eventually he found his way to his current role as pricing coordinator at German-owned logistics firm Kuehne & Nagel; he credits the IRC and his own vision for getting him over the hump.
“I just kept fighting for it. I wanted to use my mind. I want to use what I had in my heart, what I had gained my college and my experience,” he said.
Benefits for Employers
For many Atlanta companies, the experience of employing someone from halfway across the world has carried unexpected benefits.
Refugees have turned out to be capable and dependable, reducing turnover, and they add a much-needed element of diversity that often leads to cross-border friendships and cultural exchange.
David Healy, client executive for Sodexo, said his team is often focused on the patient experience within the hospitals where it serves, but bringing new faces to the team is part of caring for the workers too, and it shows in the numbers: Generally, turnover among the company’s 500 employees within Grady Hospital is 48 percent; with IRC recruits, it’s zero — and with “zero employee relationship issues, zero attendance issues.”
It has also created an atmosphere of camaraderie at a time when the world needs more empathy, especially during a pandemic and a time of global turmoil, said Mr. Healy, who was born in Ireland.
“It has created an internal empathy — it really has changed the DNA of our building, because it’s made our American-born workers understand that there is more to the world than where they grew up.”
For Natascha Brouwer, global human capital manager for digital supply chain consultancy OMP, diversity is also proof to other recruits that the company is thinking differently.
“It creates motivation and innovation for people to grow,” she said.
Moderator Jorge Fernandez, formerly head of global commerce for the Metro Atlanta Chamber and now a consultant with the Pendleton Group, said workforce development is consistently a top issue for corporate executives, which is why Atlanta has recently worked to quantify the positive economic impact of its foreign-born population.
Of course refugees will have acute needs, Ms. Bowden of IRC said, but her organization focuses on seeing them as an asset — they not only have an unrivaled appetite to put their skills to use, but they’re often trained in technical or STEM areas the U.S. has “undervalued,” she said.
She pointed to a few other success stories, including a diesel mechanic from Iraq now working for MARTA and a nurse from Ethiopia now working at Piedmont Healthcare.
To succeed, Ms. Muhoza said, the refugee and the prospective employer have to mirror the IRC’s approach in their own mind: seeing value in what they bring to the table, even when it takes some work.
“You just have to become aware of who you are — what you deserve, your values, your desires your motives and your feelings — and that is a driving force that can help you get anywhere, more than a bachelor’s degree or an MBA or anything.”
Partner organizations on the event included the French, German, Belgian, Italian, Netherlands and Swedish American Chambers of Commerce, the British-American Business Council, the International Rescue Committee.
To learn more about the IRC’s career service and to connect with a refugee worker, email Ms. Bowden at Lauren.Bowden@rescue.org.
To donate to the IRC or find other ways to get involved, contact Marian.Dickson@rescue.org
Contact Annemarie McFarland at the Netherlands-American Chamber of Commerce Southeast here to learn how to view the full recording.