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In Idaho, refugees reclaim professional lives

The people who work with refugee resettlement battle a certain public perception — that refugees are unskilled, or have skills that do not translate into modern American life, or that they speak no English.

The reality, said Lisa Cooper, founder of Global Talent Idaho, is that around 100 of the 1,000 refugees who come to Idaho each year are highly skilled degree holders. Among them are professors, doctors, computer specialists and mechanics. Despite their skills and once-thriving careers in their home countries, they struggle when they come to Idaho.

“You could argue that folks with those backgrounds have the greatest potential to find their own way. But they’re not. Those who come here with college degrees and language skills still make an average of less than $9 an hour,” said Cooper.

There are a few reasons. Even if refugees speak English, they may not be completely fluent. They may have difficulty re-establishing professional licenses in the U.S. In some cases, that task is complicated by having had to flee their homes, leaving their personal documents, academic records and more behind.

The refugee-resettlement program provides eight months of cash assistance for new arrivals, said Cooper. When that runs out, refugees often take any job available, even one below their skill level, to support their families and to repay transportation costs to the U.S. government.

Cooper and Tara Wolfson, special projects manager and regional employment specialist at the Idaho Office for Refugees, partnered to launch the Global Talent Idaho program in May 2014. The program is meant to provide a link for refugee job-seekers who have strong professional backgrounds, and get them on a path that’s related to their fields of expertise.

“You hear lots of conversations here that there are not enough people with STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) skills, said Cooper. We have doctors, engineers and accountants on our roster. Our program can be a win-win to help skilled refugees reclaim their careers, and help the state retain talent.”

Global Talent Idaho is a six-month program for refugees with a bachelors or higher degree, who have two years or more of professional experience, and intermediate or better English skills. In the program, participants learn to write resumes. They work one-on-one with volunteer mentors in professional fields. They learn the art of describing their skills in ways that will appeal to American employers. They hone their English through mock interviews and mock networking sessions not unlike cocktail parties — but without the cocktails — where they have just a few minutes to introduce themselves to fellow professionals and describe their job skills and ambitions. An internship program also provides job experience and, thanks to a Department of Labor grant, salaries.

REMAKING CAREER, REMAKING FAMILY

In many ways, Richard Naing, 30, is a typical Global Talent Idaho participant. He has a degree, lots of talents and interpersonal skills, but no job.

An oppressive government forced him to leave Burma for the safety of a Malaysian refugee camp in 2002. He fled alone, cutting all ties to his family so that they would be safe. Naing has been in the U.S. for two years. He has a degree in civil engineering and is a self-taught computer whiz. Naing is working on his English and networking skills through Global Talent. He has worked a range of jobs to support himself in Boise, from doing laundry and housekeeping at a Downtown hotel to testing chips on a production line at Micron on a temporary contract.

A full-time, permanent job in his field, though, has eluded him. Determined to put his skills to use, Naing founded his own business — the Boise Burmese Computer Lab. He operates the lab in his apartment on the Boise Bench, or in his garage when the weather is warm. He got the idea after hearing that many of his fellow refugees had inherited old or broken computers from well-meaning donors and were paying up to $150 to get them fixed. Naing started repairing the computers, which grew into tutoring — especially for people who haven’t used computers much. He helps Burmese and other refugees set up Facebook and Twitter accounts, and teaches them to use email. Naing doesn’t charge for his work. There are other rewards.

“My life is safe. My family is far away. This community has become my family away from family,” he said. He benefits from an informal barter system. He’s traded his skills for driving lessons. Older refugees have taught him to garden. That, along with table tennis and chess, are among his favorite pastimes.

‘A PROVEN TENACITY’

Being a Global Talent Idaho volunteer mentor, said Denise Caruzzi, mainly comes down to lending moral support for newly arrived refugee job seekers.

“Letting them know that someone in Boise cares about their success,” she said.

Caruzzi’s background is in the corporate world. She runs a small private consulting business focusing on intercultural and leadership training and human resources. Along with the moral support, she has also shared her knowledge of resume writing and interview skills, helping job-seekers “explain their skills in ways an employer would recognize in the U.S.”

She recently got some good news. She had mentored a Global Talent job-seeker — a woman from Central Asia who had been a doctor in her home country — who found an internship as a phlebotomist in a hospital. This followed a stint as a housekeeper in Boise.

The doctor, said Caruzzi, had decided that the path to regaining her medical license in the U.S. was too long. “But she, and everyone in the program, hopes to at least get an entry-level job on the career ladder in their field so they can demonstrate their ability to do work, and eventually do higher levels of work, and show what they’re capable of,” said Caruzzi.

Caruzzi is planning a celebration for the doctor.

“One of the big things is that not only do we want to celebrate her, but it’s inspiration for other refugees, the hope that something really can happen here,” said Caruzzi. “Here are people with tremendous skills, but more than that, a proven tenacity and sense of accountability that we don’t even understand.”

ADOPTING A SUCCESSFUL PROGRAM

Global Talent Idaho requires its participants to have a bachelor’s degree. Nearly half of the 60 refugees in the program have advanced degrees. Most are in the U.S. through the refugee-resettlement program, although some participants are not refugees. All have permanent legal status and are on track to become U.S. citizens. The gender breakdown is close to half-and-half, with slightly more men.

The largest group of refugees coming to Idaho today are from Iraq.

“Countries like Iraq, Iran, which we are seeing represented more, have more developed education systems,” said Cooper. “Many have had the benefit of education and have lived upper-class lives. Many come to the U.S. on special immigrant visas.”

The latter group includes Iraqis who worked as translators or in other roles for the U.S. military, putting their lives at risk in Iraq. More well-educated refugees will mean more need for professional development programs like Global Talent Idaho.

The group began modestly just over a year ago, said Cooper. She and Wolfson scrambled to sign up for Idaho Gives, a day of online fund-raising organized each May by the Idaho Nonprofit Development Center. Word got out, and soon Global Talent Idaho had raised a few thousand dollars.

A grant also helped it receive training from a 15-year-old refugee job program, Upwardly Global, with offices around the country. Upwardly Global has placed nearly 2,500 skilled immigrants in professional jobs.

Global Talent Idaho is among the recipients of a $3 million statewide grant from the Idaho Department of Labor to provide workplace learning opportunities and paid internships for Idahoans who have struggled to find work, including refugees, long-term unemployed people and others on the brink of exhausting unemployment benefits.

Global Talent Idaho has placed 14 interns thanks to the grant, including an Iraqi chemical engineer at a local dairy, a teacher from the Democratic Republic of Congo who speaks six languages and is teaching English at College of Western Idaho, a computer engineer who’s starting work at the Idaho Department of Labor and the doctor from Central Asia who returned to a medical lab. She’s in a new country, but that’s an environment she knows well.

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