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Help wanted

"Help wanted" Continued...

Issue: "The Obama era," Feb. 14, 2009

Mark Kadel says Shamah's plight is common. Kadel, director of the High Point office of World Relief, says refugees at their field offices around the country face difficulties finding jobs. Rising unemployment has created more competition for blue-collar jobs that used to be widely available for refugees. Other labor-related jobs-like cleaning up construction sites-are suitable for refugees with limited English, but have dried up with the construction industry. When a refugee competes for a job with dozens of Americans, employers often naturally select the candidate with the best English skills and familiarity with the industry. That's usually not a refugee.

World Relief is one of 10 nonprofit agencies contracted by the State Department to help resettle refugees. The government provides funding for some administration costs and a small allowance for each refugee-$425 per individual. Agencies use those funds to procure housing, furniture, food, and other basic items for refugees. They also register children for school and adults for English classes, and help with job searches. The goal, according to Kadel, is self-sufficiency as quickly as possible. The agencies aim for refugees to be self-supporting in the first three to six months (though they are still eligible for some government aid), but the economic climate is making that more difficult.

Robert Carey of the International Rescue Committee, another group resettling refugees, says his organization has seen a 50 percent drop in their job placements, and other agencies report similar declines.

Those declines are discouraging to Ahmad Yaseen, husband of Fatima, the Wal-Mart applicant who faced 56 other applicants for an entry-level job. Yaseen, once a taxi driver in Baghdad, suffered shell injuries in his back and head in Iraq, but the family's worst wound: the loss of their oldest daughter, a 19-year-old girl killed by a mortar that hit the family's kitchen.

World Relief is assisting the Yaseen family (who for fear of attacks on relatives remaining in Baghdad asked that their real names not be used in this story) as both parents look for jobs. From a chilly living room with bare walls in a modest rental home in High Point, Yaseen talks about his job search while Shamah, the young Iraqi doctor, translates. Yaseen says he looks for jobs everywhere: "Anything so I can support my family." World Relief's rental assistance has technically ended, but volunteers helped cover the family's rent in January. Yaseen doesn't know about next month, and says he feels guilty for not being able to provide for his family.

Still, he's grateful for World Relief and for volunteers who help meet his family's needs. "Without them, only God knows," he says. "Probably I would have been sleeping on the street."

Kadel says World Relief depends on volunteers from churches to partner with refugee families: "We look to be the conduit between the government and the church to get the church involved with these vulnerable people groups." Church groups often help families settle into their homes, learn English, and adjust to life in America. Kadel says refugee families-often Muslims-are surprised by Christians helping them with no strings attached: "What an opportunity to show what Christianity is all about."

It's also an opportunity for churches that can't afford expensive mission trips to remain globally minded, says Kadel: "Local churches are beginning to think outside the box and realize that mission work can be done right here on their own doorstep."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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