Training Program Gives Refugees Work Experience

Training program gives refugees work experience
Written By Jessica Opoien, Oshkosh Northwestern Media
May 23, 2013

Refugees resettling in the Oshkosh area now have an opportunity to gain work experience, English skills and job references thanks to a partnership between World Relief Fox Valley and Habitat for Humanity. photo (3)

The Habitat Employment Training Program places refugees resettling through World Relief into what amounts to an unpaid internship while they look for jobs. The eight-week program puts refugees to work in the Habitat ReStore and on construction sites.

“Our main goal is to advance their communication skills, in a workplace rather than just a classroom, as well as provide them with a working reference — just kind of an initiation to the American job culture,” said Keri Ewing, Americorps VISTA volunteer coordinator with Habitat for Humanity.

Fourteen refugees participated in a pilot program, with seven completing it. Since then, five have found full-time employment. The program began as a partnership between Habitat and World Relief, a humanitarian organization that helps refugees resettle in the United States. An Oshkosh office opened in January 2012.

The collaboration expanded to include the Workforce Development Center, the state Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, Winnebago Literacy CouncilCity of Oshkosh, Oshkosh Area Community Foundation, ADVOCAP and the Wisconsin Works program. The program’s funding currently comes from Americorps and a Community Foundation grant.

Last year, World Relief assisted in placing 86 refugees in the Oshkosh area, most of whom were Burmese. Others hailed from Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Darfur. About three-fourths of those refugees were adults. The office expects to resettle about 100 refugees per year.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) resettlement handbook, the United States was projected to resettle 52,500 refugees from around the world in fiscal year 2011. The word “refugee” refers to people who have crossed international borders for actual or feared risk of persecution for political, religious or ethnic reasons.

When refugees flee their country, they have three options. They can stay in a resettlement camp in a second country, and return to their home when conditions have stabilized. If their country remains unstable, sometimes they can integrate into the country of asylum — an option that’s very rare. The third, and also rare, option is to resettle in a third country like the U.S.

Upon being resettled, refugees receive 30-90 days of direct assistance from organizations like World Relief, as well as language training and a short orientation. After three months, they still receive some assistance but are expected to have found a job.

However, with little to no English skills and no work experience in the U.S., finding a job is often easier said than done. That’s where employment training program comes in.

“We have people from different countries either with no work experience or work experience that is not recognized,” said Myriam Mwizerwa, office director at World Relief Fox Valley. “Anything they can do here in the U.S. and have that reference helps.”

Refugees come from a wide variety of circumstances and have a broad range of professional experiences. Some have worked as doctors and lawyers, others as carpenters. Some have worked recently and others have spent the last several years in refugee camps. The number one goal for all refugees, regardless of professional experience, is economic self-sufficiency, Mwizerwa said.

The two biggest barriers to self-sufficiency are language barriers and transportation, said Christy Hillebrand, World Relief’s employment specialist. English classes are helpful, but often, being in a work environment helps improves language skills more than learning in a classroom.

photo (4)Jay Barrientes, project manager for Habitat for Humanity, works directly with refugees on the construction sites. Currently, he is working with three refugees from Myanmar: Ruata Ialrem, Sum Hran and Vum Iian, on a house on Winnebago Avenue that is expected to be finished by Aug. 6. Hran said someday he would like to have a job making furniture.

Barrientes said language is the biggest challenge, but they work through it by going slowly and using hand signals. Safety is also a major challenge, he said, adding that regulations vary significantly from country to country. Much of the skills and knowledge he passes on are things he takes for granted.

“They’re getting American job skills in an industry that many of them could probably leave here and go work in … at least they know basic measuring skills and operating power tools … and then to be able to feel more comfortable with the language and interacting with people,” Barrientes said. “These guys want to help, and I think they want to be part of our community.”

Mwizerwa and Hillebrand said World Relief is still trying to make connections with employers and find job possibilities for refugees, as well as professional mentors. Since the organization is relatively new to the area, it’s still working on making itself known. In the meantime, while refugees search for full-time employment, the Habitat program allows them to become more comfortable in the American workplace.

“The refugees are able to help out with something that’s going on in the community and give back, too,” Hillebrand said. “So it’s a win-win.”

To learn more about World Relief Fox Valley, please contact Myriam Mwizerwa, mmwizerwa@wr.org or 920-891-7961.

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