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Highly skilled refugees face hurdles to practice former professions

Posted on March 8, 2016 at 3:01 pm

By Justin Perkins

It was just after 1 in the afternoon on a Monday, and a steady procession of people and carpools began flowing in and around the Center for People in Need at 3901 N. 27th St. While some arrived to attend ELL classes, and some left toting needed supplies of food and hygiene products, Sayed Torak emerged from the building’s automatic doors carrying a thick manila folder.

Moments earlier, using one of the Center’s computers and scanners, Torak had electronically sent his résumé to an Omaha engineering company. Since the summer of last year, he has embarked on the often difficult and confusing process of seeking gainful employment for an entry level position in the field of his expertise, nearly a year after coming to the United States as a refugee. In the single manila folder, he carried with him copies of his transcripts and bachelor’s degree, the only physical proof of his education and background.

As a civil engineer in Afghanistan, Sayed Torak managed multimillion-dollar road design projects. But the refugee faces many obstacles in getting licensed and certified to work as an engineer in the U.S. / Photo by Justin Perkins

As a civil engineer in Afghanistan, Sayed Torak managed multimillion-dollar road design projects. But the refugee faces obstacles in getting licensed to work as an engineer in the U.S. / Photo by Justin Perkins

“Even if it’s at the bottom level, I know I need to at least get a job somewhere and be around engineers in the field,” Torak said. Built with a strong, lean frame, gentle face and crisp black hair He spoke with a mixture of growing determination and wariness. “But just as a technician, it’s not good income and really not a sustainable solution for me.”

Torak was once a civil engineer in Afghanistan. After graduating in 1994 with a degree in civil engineering from Nangarhar University—a five-year program—Torak had risen to the level of a senior engineer in Afghanistan. Eventually he would acquire 20 years of experience working in high-level capacities with the Afghanistan government, the United Nations, and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Routinely, he managed road design projects ranging anywhere from $2 million to $65 million and coordinated staff from Afghanistan, the United States, and other countries around the world. He also became familiar with U.S. codes and professional standards, gaining several colleagues as references in the United States.

Along with his wife, Torak now volunteers at the Center for People in Need for about two hours a day, five days a week. They receive cash assistance in return to help pay for the expenses of moving and rebuilding their family’s life in a new country.

As the only driver in the family and with only one car—a golden Chrysler Town & Country minivan—Torak has had to balance his family’s precarious daily schedule. The rest of his day, like that of most others, would be spent ensuring that his family achieved what they needed to: providing transportation for his wife and four kids to school, doctor appointments, the grocery store and various other errands around Lincoln, meanwhile alternating his own time between volunteer work at the Center and finding entry level engineering positions.

Convoluted and complex system

For thousands of highly skilled, trained, and educated foreign professionals who come to the United States as refugees, the process of recertification of professional credentials and education experience involves an encounter with highly convoluted “system” that is complex, prolonged, expensive, and difficult to navigate. Apart from language and social barriers—which often put refugees at disadvantage whether completing certification exams, applying for jobs, or interviewing—refugees also face significant financial, time commitment and psychological hardships when trying to obtain a job in their former professions.

“For a lot of our highly skilled refugees, it’s a much harder road for resettlement because they’re much more aware of the loss in status,” said Rochelle Heimann, one of the five full-time employment specialists at Lutheran Family Services in Omaha. Heimann specializes with refugee clients who have received some form of higher education beyond the equivalent of a high school diploma. “They owned homes, they owned businesses, they were higher up economically in society, but when they come to the U.S. they’re starting completely over.”

And despite demand for qualified professionals in fields like medicine and engineering, both immigrant and refugee professionals confront sizable barriers to recertification and licensure, which often leads to a significant waste of human resources, according to a 2013 Migration Policy Institute report by Linda Rabben, associate research professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland.

From 2005 to 2006, 6.1 million immigrants above the age of 25 held at least a bachelor’s degree, and about half received their education abroad. While the share of immigrant population holding less than a high school degree in the U.S. was about three times higher than their native counterparts, roughly the same percentage of people held at least a bachelor’s degree.

“Especially for refugees who come to the U.S. with higher education degrees or from high skilled and trade professions, they are more aware of this drop in status,” Heimann said.

Nebraska engineering requirements

Though Torak’s experience qualifies him for some of the highest positions in the engineering field, he still lacks the proper licensing to apply for these jobs, or any full-time engineering position in the United States. And having been resettled in the United States for just over a year, he has grown more uneasy of his position working low-wage jobs, and adamant a stable job in his profession.

To become a fully licensed engineer in Nebraska, an applicant must pass a series of required certification exams. These often come with a significant cost. Following approval by the of an applicant’s graduation from an accredited engineering program by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, or its equivalent from a foreign institution, a potential applicant would need to pass the Fundamentals of Engineering exam (FE)—a $225 test. Next an applicant must take the Principles and Practice of Engineering Exam (PPE)—an eight hour, 17 subject test that includes several other licensing fees.

After passing the test, applicants must then undergo at least four or more years of engineering experience approved by the Nebraska Board of Engineers and Architects. Were Torak need to retake one of the exams for any reason, he would have to pay the registration fees again.

Fortunately for Torak, his transcripts, degree, and four year experience requirements have already been recognized by the Board. Yet to prepare for the tests alone, he has spent $850 to enroll in a rudimentary online course for the exams, in addition to several hours committed to studying the materials, and the financial and emotional stress has presented an even greater challenge to the family’s life in the U.S.

Limited time, resources and energy

If he’s lucky, Torak mentions, he might find time to study the materials he saved from the online course. Yet with limited time, financial resources, and emotional energy, like many other foreign-trained professionals who seek to regain work in their professions after resettlement, Torak said that even just finding the energy at the end of the day is difficult itself.

“It’s not easy for a person who graduated over 20 years ago and has worked in the field, away from the theory, to go back and remember the details of the fundamentals,” Torak said. “I don’t have much time during the day. At night, if I feel up to it, I will continue working at the materials, one subject at a time.”

And this worries Torak. Lately, the tension between the needs of his family’s resettlement and their long-term stability has proved daunting, especially if he were to secure a full-time position fit for his professional experience. While it’s a task they have invested heavily in, and would help secure their financial independence and well-being in America, taking crucial time away from his family could disrupt their daily routine of support and even force them to relocate once again.

Often, and at times for years on end, refugees are forced to accept what Heimann calls “survival jobs,” or lower-end, manual labor jobs which require a limited knowledge of English, just to support their families. For many, Heimann said, this can result in a dangerous cycle where at their jobs, refugee’s don’t become exposed to English to obtain a better job, and—after years spent fleeing their home countries and living in exile—may slowly feel the emotional stress begin affect them considerably.

Soon, Torak said, his cash assistance program will require him to find such a “survival” job, only adding more stress and commitment away from his studies.

“The little time I have is important,” Torak said, “but what I find is that I continue to have less of it.”

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Omar Rashsho once wanted to be a history teacher in Iraq. A Yazidi originally from a small village near the Sinjar mountains, Rashsho remembers his fascination with the subject of history as a student.

“My group, for over 1,000 years we have had nobody writing our history, it is an oral history,” Rashsho said. “I wanted to teach history that way I could know more about my people and teach that to our children in the village.”

In 1986, Rashsho graduated from college with a degree in teaching, his education funded by the government of Iraq.

However, Rashsho was never allowed the chance to practice. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, efforts by Saddam Hussein’s regime to control and eventually eliminate the Kurdish people forced thousands of families, including Rashsho’s, from their homes and villages.

Viewed as religious heretics and “devil worshipers” under Hussein, Yazidis were especially demonized—a religious misunderstanding that grimly continues today with terror of Daesh (also known as ISIS) in what Yazidi’s call the 74th attempt at genocide of their people.

After his graduation, Rashsho was never considered for a position.

Rashsho recalls how, after he received his teaching degree, the government came and forced thousands of families from dozens of villages nearby to relocate in one central town. The government then built a school, where it was able to manipulate the curriculum much more closely, Rashsho said.

“They didn’t even study our language [Kurdish] anymore,” Rashsho said. “They made everyone speak and write in Arabic.”

Packing plant and custodial work

Soon after fleeing Iraq, Rashsho spent eight years in Syria before he came to the United States. Knowing little English, he spent his first few years working at various meat-packing plants in Nebraska. When the work proved draining both emotionally and physically, he then applied as a custodian on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s East Campus, where he worked for eight years.

Rashsho once considered going to school in the United States in order to teach here. But, with his years working in manual labor, while having difficultly maintaining his skills speaking English—most of his coworkers tended to be refugees or immigrants like him—eventually caused him to lose the will to seek this pursuit.

“I am not young anymore,” Rashsho said, who recently turned 50, but over the years of fleeing his home country, living in exile, and working low-earning manual labor jobs, has aged considerably. Even if a refugee can overcome the emotional toll of fleeing persecution and violence in their home country, and adjust to a new way of life in a new country, the chance to obtain work or gain education to find work in their former professions often becomes daunting.

Today, Rashsho has dedicated more of his time attending ELL classes at the Good Neighbor Community Center, 2617 Y Street. There, many others share situations such as Rashsho’s.

Others in similar situation

Intissar Al-Abbea, a woman from Iraq, graduated with a degree in art in 1989 from the University of Baghdad. After fleeing to Dubai, United Emirates, and selling her artwork at markets for nearly 17 years, Al-Abbea also lost interest when she came to the United States. Away from her connection to the art community in Dubai, Al-Abbea now prefers to work to support her two children, who currently attend the UNL.

Farid Dorajirahimi, a man from southern Iran, had worked for 25 years in an auto body repair shop that he owned. Now in the U.S., Dorajirahimi has found it difficult to find anywhere to work, as most body shops require an associate’s degree in order to have the ability to work on the more complex electronics of cars in the United States. Dorajirahimi originally trained through an apprenticeship in Iran, and hopes to save money to go back to school.

Unlike many people in his situation, Torak was fortunate. Receiving advice from his U.S. engineering colleagues before he left Afghanistan, Torak obtained his bachelor’s certificate along with his transcripts and had them stamped for approval by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education. When granting recognition for a degree from a foreign university, the board typically requires direct contact with an institution to obtain the necessary documents and recommendations to certify a person’s educational experience and to see if it meets the credential standards of the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, an accreditation body.

But after months of not hearing from his University, Torak had to petition for an exception. Torak said that for emigrants from Afghanistan, the Ministry of Education and universities don’t offer such requests out of animosity. Luckily, the board eventually recognized his experience and degrees based on his references.

But for foreign professionals who either did not have time to obtain their transcripts when fleeing their country, Heimann said, or whose universities like Torak’s refuse to approve such educational documents, the pathway to gaining recognition for professional credentials becomes significantly burdened. Many times, they cannot obtain the proper educational documents from their countries of origin, due to violence or resentment by an institution towards someone who has emigrated. Without accreditation from either public or private regulatory bodies, they must either start over or chose not to pursue their profession in their new life.

Incidences of discrimination

While Nebraska notably contains one of the largest secondary migration populations in the United States due to low unemployment, a low cost of living, and perceived hospitality, incidences of discrimination against refugees is still a reality many confront upon resettlement and integration into communities, especially in light of recent fears due to recent terrorist attacks, Heimann said.

A few months ago, one of Heimann’s clients, a female jeweler from Bhutan, applied for a job at a major jewelry company in Omaha. In Bhutan, Heimann said, after first graduating with a gemology degree from a local university, her client worked in a jewelry store for 10 years, and eventually became an educator in gemology and certified in rating all types of stones—experience that Heimann says is rare and highly coveted among gemologists.

After the first interview, Heimann said, the company had been impressed with her résumé that she was told to contact them again in a month, as a top-level position in the company was soon to open up.

But a month later—about a week after the San Bernardino shootings—when Heimann called on her behalf, the company said they were no longer interested, and that she was underqualified.

Refugees also confront similar difficulties when seeking accreditation. According to the report by Rabben, refugees can also find it difficult to have their experience overseas be credited by employers or regulatory bodies for accreditation, where there is also a divide between the Global North and Global South. According to another 2008 Migration Policy Institute report, highly skilled African and Latin American-born immigrants were often found at a greater disadvantage than their counterparts from Europe and Asia when seeking accreditation for their education, in addition to lower wages than their counterparts.

Loss of human capital

And despite strong demand in some fields for qualified professionals, even foreign trained professionals coming to the United States on work visas, the process of accreditation in the United States is a largely decentralized system, where institutions relying on both public and private third-party credential recognition bodies. As a result, there is a significant loss of human capital and resources, according to the report by Rabben.

According to the American Medical Institute, International Medical Graduates (IMG’s) make up approximately 25 percent of the U.S. physician population. This number is only expected to rise, as the number of ECFMG certificates issued to IMG’s has risen about 14 percent since 2009.

Yet in the medical field, as with engineering, there are multiple tests required to recertify a degree, prove professional competency, as well as proficiency in English, and licensing fees that range from $550 to $1,100 each.

But while limited financial and social resources are available, Heimann and Lutheran Family Services have established one of Nebraska’s only career matching programs for refugees in the United States.

‘Hopeful and determined’

Last year, Lutheran Family Services launched a pilot Career and Connections program, which paired refugees with Omaha professionals of similar educational and professional background. Heimann said they have also paired with programs like Heartland Family Services, and established work study programs with local programs like the University of Nebraska Medical Center that can provide financial assistance and tuition reimbursement for refugees. Heimann said that because of the success of the pilot program, Lutheran Family Services plans to install a permanent Career and Connections program in January.

“There is a sense that it is a very difficult road, but our clients are also very hopeful and determined.” Heimann said. “There is the feeling that ‘I’m safe, my kids are safe, and now that we’ve arrived, we can start again.’”

Meanwhile, as Torak climbed back into his family’s minivan to first pick up his wife from their home, and then their kids from school, he set his papers next to his lap and looked through his résumé one more time.

“I have a challenge in front of me,” Torak said. “But at least I know I have a way to get off of assistance and get to a place where we are self-sufficient and in a sustainable way.”


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