Educated and underemployed: refugee student seeks second degree

Story and photos by DEVON ALEXANDER BROWN

Over 60,000 refugees have been resettled in Utah since the 1970s. Prior to the Trump administration, Utah’s designated voluntary agency affiliatesCatholic Community Services and the International Rescue Committee — were resettling roughly 1,200 refugees a year. While agencies do what they can with the resources they have, many refugees find the adage “it’s not what you know, but who you know,” continues ringing true.

Firas, a refugee from Iraq, has personal testimony of the value of networking. He resettled in Salt Lake in March 2014 by way of the IRC, but he has an uncle whom he lived with after resettling, and who continues to offer emotional and financial support.

Firas, who asked to have his surname withheld, holds a degree in civil engineering from a university in his native Iraq, but was dismayed when he found that using his professional training in the U.S would be difficult. The IRC helped him secure an entry-level position in the customer service sector a few months after arrival, but he felt unmotivated and underutilized by the position because of a desire to continue his profession.

“They [the IRC] will explain that it’s not going to be easy to go back to your job,” Firas said. “This is the general talk about this topic … it’s not going to be easy. Because you’re going to face different stuff, regardless of the language challenge.”

But after some time in Salt Lake, and while living with his uncle, Firas stumbled upon good fortune.

“My uncle is here so we met at the mosque and fortunately I met one of the refugees who came through the same process,” Firas said. “That guy actually was part of the NAAN program [New Academic American Network] … he was asking me what was my major, what did I do in my undergrad. He told me he just finished his master’s at the university which is how I learned ‘OK you actually can go back.’”

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The UNP main office. University Neighborhood Partners was created in 2001 to empower SLC’s westside residents. Many refugees are resettled on the west side of Salt Lake.

The New American Academic Network is a partnership facilitated by University Neighborhood Partners in conjunction with the University of Utah, the University of Utah International Center and the Department of Workforce Services. Because many refugees arrive without the means and proper credentials to work in their respective fields, the goal of the program is to empower refugees and immigrants through access to higher education. In Firas’ case he is working toward a master’s degree in structural design.

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The UNP Partnership Center opened in 2004 and brings together over 30 university partnerships and 20 local nonprofits.

Although he was able to enroll at the U through the network, he was forced to initially enroll as a non-matriculated student because he did not meet university requirements. Firas, like local students attending graduate school, was required to pass the Graduate Record Examination, but because his native language isn’t English he also had to pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language exam. Although challenging, Firas passed both exams on his second attempt. He credits his time in customer service with accelerating his English fluency.

Partnerships like the New American Academic Network are essential for educated refugees looking to move beyond underemployment. The Academy of Hope, a fellow partnership facilitated through the U, offers no-cost certificates in professional management, web design and human resources management.

Claire Taylor, director of the Academy of Hope, says language, though a primary challenge, is but one of many obstacles refugees face on their path to higher education.

“A common challenge is not being able to afford the cost of certificate classes,” Taylor said in an email interview. “Another common challenge is carving out the time in their schedules to be able attend all of the classes.”

A relatively new program, the Academy of Hope saw one student enrolled in 2016, but Taylor says the 2017 Spring semester provided a cohort of students. So far seven participants have been refugees.

Thanks to the New American Academic Network, Firas is able to finish his master’s degree. Yet even with tuition assistance, he says it is not easy to support himself and complete his program and the engineering internship he is currently involved with.

“Fortunately my uncle is here and he supports me until now,” Firas said. “I was living with him at the beginning and he and his family helped me a lot. It’s difficult to have a place in a different culture, different society.”

Firas understands that case workers in the IRC are limited in their reach and ability to assist refugees on an extended individual basis. But he also thinks a more thorough and personalized approach in the early stages of resettlement would be beneficial — especially for refugees who are professionally trained.

Gerald Brown, assistant director of refugee services for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, is in agreement. He says his experience with refugees reflects a need for lengthier case management.

“Every new refugee needs case management for at least two years and I would argue for longer than that for many of them,” Brown said in a telephone interview. “It just to me makes common sense. A case manager helps a refugee kind of come up with a plan to meet their needs, to thrive in this community and then sort of follows the plan, helps them adjust over time, [and] gives them information when they need it.”

Although Firas hasn’t obtained his master’s degree yet, he is close and hopeful. And because of his personal good fortunes, Firas says he makes every effort to inform other refugees about lesser known resources that can help them get back on their professional footing.

“I’m still referring anybody who came as a refugee — who has a graduate or even non-graduate [degree],” Firas said. “Either go into community college or to the university … this is the option you have and how to go back to what you like.”