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.’”


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.


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.”

From camps to cities: refugees and their path to self-reliance

Story and photo by DEVON ALEXANDER BROWN

Many refugees resettled in the United States have survived horrors of war and persecution in their homelands. Others have endured years of scarcity in refugee camps. Utah Health and Human Rights, an organization that specializes in mental health services for refugees with severe trauma, estimates there are 17,500 survivors of trauma located throughout Utah.  For those granted asylum that trauma is not left at customs — it is carried with them as they ease into new lives. This process ultimately means finding employment and navigating an unfamiliar world, all within a goal of six months.

An individual with refugee status is very different than someone issued an immigrant visa. An immigrant voluntarily takes up residence in a new nation and has the luxury of returning home. A refugee does not have the same luxury. By federal law, anyone granted refugee status must have a “well-founded fear of persecution” based on religion, political opinion, race or social status.

Aden Batar, director of immigration and refugee resettlement for Catholic Community Services, is well aware of the distinction between refugees and immigrants. A former refugee, he fled his native Somalia due to civil war. After two weeks of hiding he traveled alone by road to neighboring Kenya. Once in Nairobi, he paid a pilot to return for his family — with money he kept secretly stitched to the inside of his trousers.

“Looking back I don’t know how I did it,” Batar said while chronicling the measures he took to secure his and his family’s safety. “Thinking about it now, it seems crazy, but it was worth it for peace and a new life.”

Batar endured challenges, but he says he was fortunate. He was a college graduate and had a brother in Logan, studying at Utah State University, who helped him and his family obtain refugee status in the early 1990s. And he managed to quickly land a manufacturing job while studying at USU himself, before relocating to Salt Lake City and joining the CCS staff in 1996.

But many new arrivals are resettled with little or no formal education. And without any ties to their new home, resettlement can be an unnerving and difficult process.

Catholic Community Services is a social services organization located at 745 E. 300 South, in the Avenues neighborhood of Salt Lake City. CCS helps resettle approximately 1,200 refugees a year (a number that is subject to change in 2018) with the primary mission of preparing arrivals for self-sufficiency within six months. Batar estimates 85 percent of the refugees CCS receives meet this goal.


The Rev. Terence M. Moore initiated the refugee resettlement program in 1974.

Ali Abid, a job developer for CCS, is a refugee from Iraq. And like Batar, he is college educated — having earned a degree in computer science from a university in his homeland. He says he felt self-sufficient by his sixth month because he was proficient in English and secured a decent paying job at a call center. He also resettled alone and did not need assistance for medical conditions or disabilities, although he has struggled to further his education here in the U.S. Abid says English is one of the primary challenges for new arrivals seeking self-sufficiency, but not knowing what’s available in the community is an equally ongoing struggle.

“Let’s say you come [to America], you speak English very well, but you don’t know where to go, how to start, what’s the best option for you,” Abid said while sitting behind a desk in his sun-filled office. “Types of resources like the libraries we have and online education … they might not be all that familiar or popular in some countries, [but] there are many benefits provided from visiting the library and having a membership with libraries and many refugees don’t know about this.”

All refugees are met by agencies like CCS, which places new arrivals in fully furnished housing. They also receive counseling, medical care, a monthly stipend and are advised on different aspects of employment. But caseworkers are often overloaded and limited in how they can aid new arrivals. And after three months of assistance, refugees are expected to pay back the cost of their travel and begin paying their own rent. Abid says it takes around two months for new arrivals to get the documents they need to begin applying for jobs and when they are finally placed with employment, the jobs are generally entry-level.

Most refugees are not college graduates or proficient English speakers. Many are unable to read and write in their native language. And there isn’t a standard definition of what self-sufficiency is. Regardless of the disparities among new arrivals, they’re held to the same timetable. Gerald Brown, director of refugee services for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, strongly believes the rate of achieving self-sufficiency is dependent on background.

“It depends on what community you’re from,” Brown said in a telephone interview. “Iraqis as a group are the most educated and westernized refugee group and speak English better so they should do better faster than any other group.”

It is unclear what it means for a refugee to be self-sufficient, but Brown says he thinks it means having a job and being able to pay the rent — and it comes in stages. For a family, self-sufficiency might mean being able to “negotiate important systems” like their children’s school enrollment and healthcare programs. Brown says that some refugees can do this very quickly, but others can take five years or longer.

Despite the obstacles refugees face, Ali Abid believes Salt Lake City is ideal for resettlement because of resources like the Refugee Training Center — which provides educational courses and job seeking services — and programs offered by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He says this makes self-sufficiency easier to attain and always encourages new arrivals to get a degree or certification.

“It’s better for their future and getting better jobs and better opportunities,” Abid said. “Even if you decide to move, to live in a different state … you maybe can get a better job and will have some skills instead of starting at ground zero.”