Frontline Perspective: Former Refugees Now Working in Refugee Employment Share Their Advice

Many of our colleagues in refugee employment are former refugees. These staff members bring with them valuable first-hand knowledge of the refugee experience, critical language skills, and a unique perspective that benefits us all.

It’s important to acknowledge, however, the personal challenges and cultural adjustment that these staff members have successfully navigated (or are currently navigating) in order to be effective in their roles.

Speaking about his own experience getting started in refugee resettlement and employment services in 2011, former Higher Peer Advisor Subash Acharya says:

 “[As a Job Developer coming from a different cultural background] I found it challenging to build rapport with employers in the beginning…Many did not feel comfortable with me because they had never worked with someone like me in the past.”

Over time Subash developed strategies for overcoming these challenges, and  eventually was promoted to Employment Services Coordinator at Ascentria Care Alliance in Concord, NH. In this role he managed a successful refugee employment program from 2015-2017, before transitioning out of refugee services in order to pursue the next steps in his own professional journey.

We wondered what the experience of other former refugees now working in refugee employment has been like, so during a breakout session at Higher’s 3rd Annual Refugee Employment Workshop, we asked these individuals to answer 3 questions:

  1. What was your biggest challenge when you began working in refugee employment?
  2. What advice do you have for new refugee employment staff coming from a refugee background?
  3. How can management at resettlement agencies support staff coming from a refugee background?

Here is what they had to say:

Biggest Challenges of refugee employment staff from a refugee background (past and present challenges)

  • Adapting to a new culture while trying to help others (many from cultures different from mine) adapt at the same time can be difficult.
  • Clients from my culture often have higher expectations of me and sometimes expect me to show them favoritism.
  • Coworkers, clients and employers sometimes have had difficulty understanding my accent.
  • Coming from a different culture, early on I had some difficulty building relationships with American employers.

Advice for refugee employment staff from a refugee background

  • Be open-minded and not too judgmental towards your coworkers and clients.
  • Stop…think about when you first arrived. Then act. Your perspective as a former refugee will help you.
  • Be flexible, and don’t take things personally.
  • Work hard on your own cultural adaptation so that you can set an example for clients.

Advice for management about hiring and working with staff from a refugee background

  • Provide additional cultural orientation and be patient as these staff members continue to adapt to American culture.
  • Don’t just hire for language ability; hire former refugees who have some experience with American culture as well as the professional skills necessary for the job.
  • Just like clients, former refugees now working in refugee employment services are adjusting to general American culture as well as American workplace culture. Set these team members up for success by clearly communicating professional expectations and office etiquette.
  • Respect the unique perspective of the former refugees on your team; show an interest in their culture and demonstrate a willingness to learn from them.

We hope that sharing the perspective of our colleagues coming from a refugee background will be a reminder of their vital contributions and provide an opportunity for coworkers and supervisors to think through how they can best support and learn from these staff members.

Job Readiness Activities for Adult Learners

Last week in Denver, attendees in the job readiness session participated in an activity to list the tools, resources and activities they currently use with clients.  Here’s the combined list.  If possible, a link to a version of the activity is included.  If you have a different version of any activity, or you have any resources to add, please contact us so we can update the list!

Interview Practice

Mock Interviews

Record Clients & Play Back for Client

Practice Interview Questions

Interactive Activities

Job Readiness Bingo

Body Language Activities

Flash Card Bowling

Welcome Circle: Begin Class by Asking Everyone Name, Origin, Languages and their First Job

First Day: Classroom Expectations – Importance of Classroom Success

Incorporating Certificates after Job Day Trainings

Resume Jeopardy

Skills

Identifying Skills that Refugees Have – Physical vs. Personal Skills

Explain How to Transfer Skills

Look at Job Listing Examples and ask, “Do you have the skills?”

Presentations

Picture Heavy PowerPoint

Visual Resources

Pictures

Describe Career Dreams Using Pictures

Videos

Videos to show the Work Done at Different Jobs

Quality Control Video – Quality, Quantity

Cards

Realia – Safety Gear

Higher Resources

Higher Advantage Modules

U.S. Job Cycle Visual (page 2)

Guided Practice

Mock Hotel Environment – Practice

Dishwasher Training at Location

Time Clock Practice

Time Clock for Attendance

Production Line Simulation

6-Day Training Spurts (short-term)

Applications & Resumes

Resume Preparation

Filling out Applications

Applications Planted at Businesses

In Class Resume Building (Skeleton Version)

Practice Application

Job Search

How to Find Jobs

Digital Literacy

Computer Lab

Mobile Computer Labs

Group Discussions

Small Group Discussion about Hygiene & Dress

Small Groups – Have clients create their own business & say what skills are needed for job

Specific Training Topics

Safety Classes: Use signs with Pictures, explain what signs mean. Explain the importance of reporting issues

Lessons on Trauma and the Impact of Trauma

Workplace Culture (i.e. handshakes & other non-verbal communication)

Job Security/Responsibility to Communicate with Supervisors (2 weeks notice)

Coworker relationships, manners, mannerisms

Hygiene, Grooming

Transportation – Teaching bus lines

English Instruction

Translated Materials

Mandatory ESL

Teach Job-Appropriate Vocabulary

Community Partnerships

Clothing Donations as Incentives

Local Library Partnerships

Adding Social Enterprises into your Curriculum

Financial Literacy

I-9 & W-2 (Tax & Pay)

Explain Payroll, Direct Deposit and Tax Forms

Assist with Opening Bank Account

Translators/Interpreters

Record Videos of Interpreters

Assessments

Go Over Pre-Employment Assessment (Reading Comprehension)

Mock Interview/Application Process as Assessment

Other

Self-Reflection

Tour at Companies

CORE

Childcare (Paid Employees)

One-on-One Pre-Employment Counseling

Wish List

More Tactile Activities

Child Care Resources – Toys for Kids

Notes

Factoring in Trauma when making Job Placements

Meat Packing isn’t good for People with Trauma

Religious Observance and Employment: Work Schedules

coexistComplete schedule flexibility is a very common requirement for both full and part time entry level jobs. Adding schedule conflicts for any reason, no matter how legitimate and important, makes our clients less competitive in the job market.

This post focuses on practical solutions and talking points in line with the reality of starter jobs, early employment and rapid self sufficiency. There are many legal and civil rights issues surrounding religious freedom and workplace accommodation of religious observance in the workplace.  You can read more about them in this guide from the Anti-Defamation League.

The Employer Perspective

Work schedules change from week to week depending on workload, time off requests and emergencies. Managers schedule carefully.  Absences or tardiness make their jobs harder.  Other team members pay the price in schedule changes and increased workloads. When hiring, employers often decide to hire a candidate who can be completely flexible to work any schedule as necessary.

Many starter jobs are customer service positions that need to be done during busy times for the employer. The majority of customers in the U.S. are able to shop on weekends. That’s when many hospitality and retail businesses are busiest. Most employers that are open on Saturdays and Sundays cannot guarantee regularly scheduled weekend days off to any employee.

The Reality for Most U.S. Workers

Weekends are when many religious observances happen for a variety of faiths.  The reality is that, often in their first job, no U.S. worker can expect to have regularly-scheduled days off on weekends. It would be irresponsible not to explain this fact very carefully to all clients who would strongly prefer to have weekends off for religious reasons. Doing so can also help clients avoid feelings of discrimination and protect valuable employer partnerships by screening out clients for whom the job might not be the best fit.

Talking Points for a Difficult Client Conversation

Explaining U.S. workplace expectations and cultural assumptions about religious observance is an aspect of helping clients adjust their expectations. Here are some additional talking points you can use when discussing religious observance and work schedules with clients:

  • In the US Workforce, seniority is often the best long term solution. Over time, employees are able to secure work schedules that better meet their needs. This point also reinforces the importance of sticking to a job rather than quitting too soon or hopping from job to job.
  • Over time, as clients acquire more US workforce experience, they may be able to secure a job upgrade that can offer the schedule flexibility they require.  The “best” job isn’t always the one that pays the most. We can help clients understand the factors they need to consider when deciding what is the best job for them.
  • Another solution, depending on employer policies, would be to discuss a trade with other employees who would prefer to have a different weekend day off for their own religious observance.  This solution will be more likely after a few months to demonstrate the value the client contributes in the workplace and the benefits of partnership with your agency. 

How Three Refugee Families Decided to Handle Religious Observance

Here are three quick examples of the different decisions three very observant refugee families made about working on weekends.

1.  The head of a large Muslim family felt that he had no choice but to accept a hotel housekeeping job that offered very little initial schedule flexibility. He stuck with the job and after only five months, he was able to secure a better work schedule that allowed him to work a split shift every Friday so he could attend mosque.

2.  A Christian family chose part time work at a business that was closed on Sunday. That meant that both the husband and wife had to work to earn enough money to meet their basic expenses, but were both able to attend church services regularly.

3.  A very large Seventh Day Adventist family stated from the beginning that their priority was their children’s education. So, despite the conflict with their wish to observe a Saturday day of rest, both parents took the first available job. Now, after six years in the U.S., they own their own home and all four of their children are enrolled in or have completed higher education.

Working with Congolese Clients – Video

We’re sharing this video with your mainstream workforce peers today, and we thought you might like to see it too!  Thank you, James Kalunga, for sharing your expertise and client-centered approach with us.

Ramadan Begins June 5th

RamadanStart Now to Help Employers and Clients Prepare

This year, Ramadan begins on June 6 and ends on July 5. Observation will begin at sunset on Sunday, June 5th. That first Ramadan Monday morning will be an especially difficult  start to the work week.

Given the current climate of fear, it will be even more important to help employers – and clients – be proactive, prepared and well informed.  

How to Learn More

Click here for an excellent guide to the basics of Ramadan from an article in The Guardian last year:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/17/ramadan-guide-to-islamic-holy-month-muslims-fast

Don’t be afraid to ask Muslim colleagues or local religious leaders for information or suggestions for how you might help employers anticipate questions and potential workplace issues.

Consider how this religious observation could impact employers, clients, your colleagues and you.

Helping Employers & Clients Prepare

Consider sending employer partners an email explaining Ramadan and providing this years dates and what it might mean for some of their employees. Reach out personally to large employers or those with significant numbers of Muslim employees.

It’s a great excuse to get in touch and they will appreciate receiving another free service from you.

Here are some ideas for special ways you could offer assistance:

  • Local mosques and religious leaders might be willing to speak at an information session for employers or attend an employer staff meeting.
  • Many employers have staff potlucks or other informal gatherings to build team morale. Think about ways to help them incorporate traditional Ramadan foods. Who wouldn’t like free baklava, right?  Consider asking a local bakery or restaurant to donate some and provide it to key employer partners along with a simple sign or announcement about Ramadan.
  • Provide information about local opportunities to learn more during Ramadan. Many mosques host iftar (fast-breaking daily evening meals) dinners that are sometimes open to guests.

In addition to your communications with employers, make sure to remind clients about the need to continue following their employer’s attendance policies and to request any time off they may need in advance.  Ask them what special issues they anticipate around Ramadan in their workplace and respond accordingly.

And don’t forget to use the proper greeting, “Ramadan Mubarak”, which means “Have a blessed Ramadan”!

Demographic Research about Islam and Muslims

Arabic calligraphy is so beautiful. Can anyone tell me what this says?

Click here to read data about Muslims and Islam in the U.S. and around the world from the Pew Reserach Center. No need to restate all of the reasons why you will find this useful.

 

5 Phrases For Navigating Difficult Client Conversations

 

0097447b-21ea-4c90-b88a-fb189307270aSome of the most difficult conversations to navigate as refugee employment professionals are those related to client expectations or difficulties they may be having at work.

Of course we want our clients to be happy and have a job that is fulfilling, but more often than not the first job opportunity that presents itself is not exactly a “dream come true.”

How can we make our clients feel like we care about their preferences and goals, while also helping them make healthy adjustments to their expectations?

These 5 phrases, recently highlighted on career blog The Muse, may be helpful to file away for these delicate conversations:

“That sounds important. Let me write that down.”

This phrase signals that you are listening and that you value your client’s background, skills and preferences.

You can value a client’s perspective even if you don’t agree with their plans or preferences. Doing so builds trust and will likely make them more receptive to hearing you if you need to challenge their perspective later in the conversation.

“Thank you for sharing that with me” or “I’ll keep that in mind” are other phrases that can help build rapport, particularly when you are first getting to know a client.

“Yes…AND.”

This phrase can help you motivate clients while also correcting and deepening their understanding of the situation at hand. “Yes, BUT…” indicates that you are not listening or disagree, “Yes…AND” is more collaborative, communicating that you like their idea, but have something else to add or see another helpful angle.

Add this phrase to your mental toolbox and use it when developing employment plans with clients or discussing their expectations. For example, “Yes, I also think that you have the potential to be a supervisor, AND this entry level position is your first step in that direction.”

“Tell me about the last time that happened.”

This phrase helps you not jump to conclusions. This can be particularly helpful for discussing problems clients may be encountering at work. For example, perhaps you have a client who is telling you that they are planning to quit their job because of a specific problem they keep having at work.

“Tell me about the last time that happened” will help your client analyze the situation, provide you with the details you need, and create an opportunity for you and your client to collaborate on possible solutions besides quitting.

“Let me repeat that back to you.”

If you want a classic text book way to make anyone in any situation feel listened to, this is it. Phrases like “Let me repeat that back to you” or “So what I hear you saying is…” help you be sure you clearly understood the person speaking to you.

Once you clearly understand their position, you will be in a better position to take the conversation in a productive direction, and the risk that you will offend them by making false assumptions is much lower.

“…..yet.”

No matter what culture you’re from, no one likes to have their dreams squashed by someone else. While our position as refugee employment professionals does at times require us to give clients a “healthy dose of reality” it is very important to remain positive and hopeful while helping clients adjust their expectations.

Adding “yet” to the end of your sentence opens possibilities, rather than closing them. “You cannot resume your former career yet.” is worlds apart from “You cannot resume your former career.” The addition of “yet” begs the question “If not now, then when?” and opens up a conversation about the steps that will be necessary to accomplish one’s goals. And that is where you come in!

For more tips related on effective communication for refugee employment professionals, sign up for Higher’s Online Learning Institute, and complete our 3-Part “Employability Assessment” training.