By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
When the United States closed the last of our military bases in Afghanistan last summer after more than 20 years in that country following the Sept. 11 attacks, a wave of evacuees, who left virtually everything behind, arrived in the U.S needing help with housing, food and clothing. Those more than 76,000 Afghan refugees have been resettled in communities across the country, a large number right here in Northern Virginia. After having their basic survival needs met, many refugees now face a new struggle: finding job security.
The task is proving to be an uphill battle for both refugees and resettlement organizations, who have been working around the clock since the Taliban overtook Kabul, Afghanistan last August.
The immediate goal for many agencies was to get families housed as quickly and efficiently as possible. Now that this has been accomplished, many refugees are having difficulty finding work – a struggle exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the already saturated U.S. job market and temporary humanitarian parole status on which many are depending.
Lisa Maddox, an Alexandria resident and operation liaison with resettlement nonprofit REACT DC, is working closely with several families to find them employment, English second language classes and social services benefits.
A former CIA officer whose prior service in Afghanistan inspired her to help, Maddox said that resettlement organizations are evolving and growing with the needs as they present themselves.
“It’s now about jobs and really settling in for the long term. Most of [the refugees] have roofs over their heads, at least temporarily, but getting settled here and building and sustaining a life with employment and mental health resources and cultural know-how is the new focus and the new push,” Maddox said.
According to the U.S. State Department, more than 4,000 refugees have come to the Northern Virginia area, many of whom ended up in Alexandria. Most of the refugees were part of the Afghan civil workforce, and Maddox said that the two specific families she mentors are vastly more educated than that which is required for the jobs they’re applying for.
One man worked on a major USAID-funded development project and for Afghanistan’s national utility. He’s now delivering flowers.
Another woman worked as a special advisor to an Afghanistan senior administrator on women’s issues and is currently applying to jobs at Target and Starbucks. She was rejected from one company that deemed her “overqualified.”
“So now we have two to three versions of their resumes that you can tailor to different positions,” Maddox said. “I want to keep that final resume with all of their university degrees and incredible experience that they had … but they have to start 20 steps behind.”
This is a normal trajectory for refugees, REACT DC Founder and CEO Amy Marden said. She pointed to many refugees’ lack of access to professional networks and the inherent skill required to navigate the U.S. job market as contributing factors to the struggle to find work.
The other issue at hand is that many refugees lack the necessary “soft skills,” or common skills applicable to all professions, such as professional writing, public speaking and communication styles specific to the United States.
“Even if they have the hard job skills to do the job, some of the soft communication, just how-things-work-in-the-U.S. business skills are not developed yet. And I think that’s where we’re falling down a lot,” Marden said. “Their resume shows their experience and getting in the interview, but during the interview they communicate differently.”
According to Marden, resettlement agencies are working to communicate with employers that although interviews with refugees may not resemble a typical U.S. citizen interview, they still offer great value and should therefore not be dismissed right off the bat.
REACT DC offers various services such as one-on-one mentorship programs and job fairs to foster networking opportunities. In addition to former Afghan government officials, the organization also assists many female caregivers in entering the workforce for the first time. Many don’t have English language skills, so REACT DC works to help them develop proficiency and thus become more competitive in the job market. Through her professional network alone, Maddox has raised more than $20,000 specifically for ESL skills.
“There is a long-term goal there to get the women that are sitting in the apartments taking care of the younger kids out and talking and meeting people, generating ideas,” Maddox said. “It’s the first of 55 steps they’re going to take to settle in and possibly find viable work and a life outside of the home, but I think those things are just so key and cannot be overlooked at all.”
The organization also offers a three-hour cultural orientation training that covers topics such as employment, lease agreements, neighborhood disputes and schooling. It also offers an eight-week course that more deeply explores U.S. history and culture.
Additionally, the organization offers navigation through job websites as well as creation and submission of cover letters and resumes. It helps familiarize refugees with what emailed communication in the United States looks like, which Marden said is very different from other cultures.
“There’s a style to it that’s not the same style the rest of the world uses,” Marden said. “We’re very brief as a culture – a lot of bullet points, a lot of incomplete sentences. Especially when English is not your first language, you have a tendency to explain more because you’re inherently concerned that they’re not understanding you. … We work a lot on the nuts and bolts of professional communication.”
So far, Marden said progress has been gradual, citing both a decent amount of wins and simultaneous frustrations. The organization celebrates whenever someone gets a job in order to keep up morale, but at the same time is constantly figuring out how to recalibrate when someone applies for work time and time again without hearing anything back.
Some immigrants are special visa holders and will become green card holders, meaning they will achieve permanency status in the United States. However, most have a two-year right to remain in the country through humanitarian parole. Marden said this can be problematic from an employer’s perspective, as the Afghan Adjustment Act has not been passed and has very little traction in Congress.
“Employers know that these people have no long-term path to remain in the U.S. Especially when you’re looking at asking them, ‘Can you train them, do the job and then retain them?’ Now they’re asking, ‘But what about in two years when they don’t have a way to stay here anymore?’” Marden said.
Maddox projected that tangible effects will appear more this fall, after a year has passed since refugees began entering the country, and after many mass asylum applications for permanent residency are further along in the process.
“I think it’s still too early because we’re at a bit of a critical juncture where people are starting to get their feet underneath them but it’s not fully there,” Maddox said.
However, there are some success stories.
Faheem Ahmad, 24, an Afghan refugee who resettled in Alexandria, said his journey to the United States was rife with complications, including hearing gunshots and explosions around the Kabul airport during an 81-hour sleepless evacuation process.
After eventually landing in the U.S., Ahmad applied for work authorization in December 2021. His approval arrived in March 2022 and he immediately embarked on a job search. He hopped on the job search website Indeed and after some perusing, found an open position as a cashier at Ross Dress for Less.
Ahmad submitted an application and a few weeks later, landed an interview. Afterward, he received a call that he got the job. Ahmad’s first day of work was Sunday, which he said was slightly nerve-wracking but mostly filled with gratitude.
Ahmad, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a specialization in human resource management in May 2019, said that he mainly experienced relief upon securing the job.
“It really made me happy because right now I immediately need a job to be in a financially stable situation, so I was very happy that I successfully achieved my job,” Ahmad said.
Ahmad’s next steps include seeking asylum and pursuing postsecondary education in information technology to provide a better life for his future children.
“I don’t want my children and my grandchildren to be refugees again. I want to permanently reside in the USA and become a green card holder and citizen so that my children and the future generation can have a safe haven to live and reside permanently,” he said.
For Marden, the work is far from over. She underscored REACT DC’s commitment to working alongside refugees every step of the way. She said the aim is not to place refugees in the first job they land, but rather to aid in honing the skills necessary to continue climbing the career ladder. The goal is to help them, then keep helping them.
“It’s not about placing someone and then walking away. It’s about placing them and making sure that they’re thriving, and then continuing to engage with them to be able to outskill and then move up, either within the same company or transition to another company in the longterm,” Marden said.