In 2011, The Modern Hotel in Downtown Boise hired Dah Bu, a Burmese refugee, to work in the kitchen, washing dishes.
The hire was neither symbolic nor political, said Remi Courcenet, food and beverage manager.
“At first, we just needed workforce,” he said. “It’s not easy work. It’s just hard to find reliable people to fill some of those positions.”
Though he spoke little English, Bu thrived. Then he began ferrying empty glasses and bottles as a bartender’s assistant. Then he moved to the cooking staff, eventually becoming one of the key cooks in the Modern’s upscale restaurant.
Pleased by Bu’s hustle, the hotel has since hired nine more refugees from war-torn nations in Africa and the Middle East. They work in various food and beverage positions or as housekeepers.
Language barriers present challenges, but Courcenet said working with refugee employees has been rewarding for the nonrefugee staff. Workers from different cultures bring different styles and sensibilities to the hotel, and even to its menu, he said.
“They come with a positive attitude every day, even if they wash dishes, which isn’t that especially fun,” he said. “Everybody gets involved. It becomes so much more than just a job.”
BACKLASH TO THE BACKLASH
Refugee resettlement became a hot-button issue in the 18 months before the Nov. 8 election. President-elect Donald Trump promised to stop or slow resettlement, especially for Muslims. In campaign speeches, Trump depicted refugees pouring into the country with insufficient vetting to ferret out potential terrorism risks.
In Twin Falls, three refugee children allegedly sexually assaulted a child at a low-income apartment complex. Anti-refugee websites said the city, police and media were covering up a gang rape at knifepoint. The local prosecutor said allegations of a gang rape were false. The case remains sealed.
In November 2015, Islamic State extremists killed 130 people in Paris. The following week, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter sent President Barack Obama a letter asking to stop resettlement to the state. Nearly two dozen governors sought to halt resettlement.
“The savage and senseless ISIS-driven attacks in Paris illustrate the essential inhumanity of terrorism and make it clearer than ever that we must make protecting our homeland from this threat our primary focus,” Otter said in a statement accompanying the letter.
The International Rescue Committee is one of Boise’s three resettlement nonprofits receiving federal and donor funding. The nonprofit saw increases in complaints about the resettlement program and in incidents of harassment in the last year, Executive Director Julianne Donnelly Tzul said. But the office also received more donations, and more volunteers signed up than ever, she said.
More Treasure Valley businesses have called, too, seeking refugee workers, she said.
“We’ve had more people reaching out not just because they need people, but because they’re watching the news and they want to be part of the larger, social story of helping refugees,” Donnelly Tzul said.
386 Number of refugees placed at jobs in the Treasure Valley through three resettlement agencies in fiscal 2016, ending Sept. 30.
142 Number of Treasure Valley employers that hired at least one refugee during that time
$8.84 Average hourly wage for those workers
88% Amount of those workers who were still employed after 90 daysSource: Idaho Office for Refugees
SKILLS, NOT EXPERIENCE
As employment specialist at the Rescue Committee, Megan Schwab reaches out to Treasure Valley employers who appear to be likely fits for her clients. She most frequently places people in janitorial, hospitality, basic assembly, restaurant and other entry-level positions.
Some refugees have the English and technical skills for better-paying jobs. Those workers often work in jobs for which they are overqualified until they can earn whatever credentials they need to secure better jobs.
Several clients who were doctors in their home countries now work in nursing positions. A former electrical engineer now reads meters on houses as an Intermountain Gas employee.
Refugees often don’t have the kind of work history that makes for typical résumé fodder, she said, because many lived in refugee camps for years and often were prohibited from working in their host countries.
So Schwab helps refugees build résumés based on their skills. For example, many refugee camps have volunteers who manage community gardens, a job requiring negotiation skills for buying seeds, planning crop cycles, and maintaining and harvesting crops.
Employers who hire refugees are frequently taking a chance on workers who must learn English and adjust to a new culture.
“Those employers are willing to work with those who aren’t as initially employable in the U.S.,” Schwab said. “Those are often more patient with clients who need to build up skills but still need a job right off the bat.”
Bob Brixey, facilities manager at Sage International School in Boise, said he hired two Congolese refugees so that the school staff would better reflect the diversity of its students.
He interviewed and hired Bonane Basangelele, 28, and Joli Ramadhan, 22, who had worked as security guards after fleeing to Tanzania.
Basangelele has scars on his head and chest from a day when militants attacked his home and killed his father. He was a small boy and doesn’t remember how he received the scars, he said through an interpreter. Considering many children are killed in such attacks, he said he is lucky to be alive.
Both of Ramadhan’s parents were killed by militants, he said. Militants came back weeks later to take him into the jungle to train him to become a child soldier, but he slipped away and traveled to Tanzania, he said.
Brixey said both men quickly took to the janitorial work.
“They are the hardest-working, happiest men I’ve ever been around,” he said. “They sing. They are happy all the time. It’s a different culture than I’m used to.”
Communication is sometimes a struggle. Basangelele understands enough English to understand most instructions, and if that doesn’t work, he speaks enough French for a Sage teacher to interpret.
Basangelele has to translate for Ramadhan, who speaks little English or French. The Congolese men speak different dialects of Swahili, so even they aren’t always on the same page, Brixey said.
Brixey said he never considered the language barriers as a reason not to hire them.
“Yes, it might take us a few weeks or more to bridge some communication barriers, but we felt like it would be worth it,” he said.
Among businesses that have hired the most refugees through resettlement agencies are GCA Services Group in Boise, which offers janitorial services, and Oak Valley Dairy in Twin Falls. Chobani, which doesn’t hire through resettlement agencies, has around 300 employees at its yogurt plant in Twin Falls.
At The Modern, many of the refugees take English classes at night, and communication is getting easier as they settle in, said Courcenet, a French immigrant. He said the hotel is a language mish-mash: He, the refugees and five Latino immigrants speak different languages, and workers are picking up bits from one another.
“They make an effort to learn English to communicate with us, so it’s only natural we make the same effort and try to learn theirs,” he said.
Besides learning English, the greatest challenge for some refugee workers is adjusting to the pace in American workplaces, Schwab said.
Adhering to a schedule and meeting expectations to clean a certain number of hotel rooms or dishes in an hour are foreign concepts to some refugees, especially those who spent most of their adult lives in refugee camps, Schwab said.
Most Rescue Committee clients learn that they must be productive, she said. The nonprofit works with its clients to improve efficiency problems, but 12 percent of refugees who land jobs through Boise resettlement agencies are fired or leave before reaching 90 days on the job.
For those, getting fired can be a wake-up call that leads some to success at their next job, Donnelly Tzul said.
“There are consequences if expectations aren’t met,” she said. “That’s a really valuable lesson.”
Transportation is another challenge. Since many refugees don’t have cars or driver’s licenses, the IRC sometimes places refugees at jobs near their homes even though they may be qualified for higher-paying work elsewhere.
Commuting adds complexity for refugees already grappling with punctuality, Donnelly Tzul said.
“To arrive on time, there are four or five decisions that need to be made correctly, especially if your route includes two or more bus lines,” she said.
Problems like this lead some local employers not to hire refugees.
Others accept the challenges because they like the idea of injecting some diversity into their companies, she said. That’s especially true for managers who have traveled outside of the U.S. or who, like Courcenet, are immigrants themselves.
“They understand the boons that having a different cultural outlook can bring,” Schwab said. “They understand how hiring somebody who knows four languages, but doesn’t yet speak English, could be an asset to the staff.”
Courcenet said he expects some of The Modern’s refugee workers to move on to other jobs. Some may work their way to better jobs at the hotel, as Bu has.
Bu recently bought a home, Courcenet said. Hotel managers are proud of their role in his new American life, he said.
Working with refugees who have escaped from war and death gives Courcenet perspective on his own life, he said.
“We look at the things that bother us instead of seeing what beautiful lives we have,” he said. “It’s a good check when you interact with them and realize life can be a lot more complicated.”
Otter: Pause resettlement
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has not changed his mind in the year since he called to halt refugee resettlement. He provided this explanation to the Statesman:
“My concerns have always centered around two things: the federal government’s lack of attention to the very real security risks that an influx of poorly or inadequately vetted refugees pose to our citizens, and the government’s unwillingness to include the states in its decision making process.
“My reasonable opposition to the status quo included a temporary halt to the refugee resettlement program until a thorough re-evaluation of current practices was completed. It’s not a matter of wanting to see resettlement to Idaho permanently stopped. What I’ve said and continue to say is that I want the whole refugee program to be put on hold until foreign vetting is improved and states have more say in the process.”