It was probably never going to be easy for Ghassan Ateyah, an Iraqi ear, nose, and throat doctor who has been a refugee in the United States for 13 months, to land a job. But with the deepening recession, the hurdles are even higher.
"You can find a job for $7 an hour or something like this in stores, but that is more time that you will be away from your field," he says. "But even that is not easy to get." These days, as a record number of Iraqi refugees flood into the United States (13,755 in fiscal year 2008), many of these new arrivals are struggling to find any jobs at all, even though many of them are highly educated.
It doesn't help that Iraqis in great numbers are heading for states that have been hardest hit by the recession. Nearly half of Iraqi refugees arriving in the United States come to either Michigan, like Ateyah, or California—states with two of the three highest unemployment rates in the country.
Across the nation, however, resettlement agencies are reporting worrying signs.
Little hard data are available on current employment rates of Iraqi refugees. But at a recent meeting, says Robert Carey, the International Rescue Committee's vice president of resettlement and migration policy, offices cited a 50 percent drop in their job placements.
"That was a fairly common story," he says. "In my 27 years in this work, I've never seen anything that rivals this in terms of its really immediate effect on finding jobs."
Even in past economic downturns, entry-level jobs were available to refugees. But those have never been ideal for Iraqis, who tend to be better educated than other arrivals, which means that they compete with Americans for higher-level jobs than do their refugee counterparts.
"You have people who have college educations—who have been working their way up corporate ladders—and suddenly are doing menial labor," says Debbie Decker, community resource developer at Los Angeles's Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Service.
Sometimes, the obstacle is a lack of English or of a U.S. employment history. At other times, it's a problem of proving one's credentials. Physical documents, like diplomas or certifications, might be lost, left behind, or burned in the chaos of war.
With or without a physical document, however, Iraqi credentials don't always translate into the U.S. system. Doctors, lawyers, and other professionals usually must be recertified when they arrive in the States, a process that can be costly and time intensive.
Then, of course, there's the issue of simple competition—which is worsening as the recession deepens.
Even in cities like Lancaster, Pa., which haven't been as badly hit by the recession as other places, it's difficult to find highly skilled Iraqi refugees jobs in their lines of work. Two thirds of the Iraqi refugees served by the city's Church World Service office are professionals, says director Sheila McGeehan. But none of them have found employment in their own fields.
That discourages the refugees, advocates say, but it also wastes an enormous pool of talent. The United States is getting, free of charge, people the Iraqi government spent thousands of dollars to educate and train, they say.
"These people are an enormous asset, but they're only an asset if we allow them to be one, tap into their skills, allow them to develop," Carey says.
Now, however, the problem isn't just getting Iraqi doctors or engineers back on their career tracks. It's finding them any jobs at all. Two years ago, most Iraqi refugees would have been placed in jobs—even if entry-level or part-time jobs—within the first four months of their arrival, resettlement offices say. Not anymore.
All this is taking a toll on the Iraqis, for whom finding a job is requiring much more time. In fiscal 2007, more than 60 percent of the Iraqi refugees on a fast-track job placement scheme through the Archdiocese of Detroit were employed within four months, says Sister Beth Murphy of the archdiocese's Refugee Services Office. This year, that was true for only 28 percent. Still, after six months, that figure climbed to 85 percent, suggesting that jobs have not dried up completely.
Murphy estimates that the majority of the Iraqi refugees at her office are living below the poverty level, compared with 1 in 5 Michigan residents.
"They're starting to say to their families, 'Go anywhere but the United States,' because the economy here is bad," she says. "I've heard people saying that if you can get to Europe, go, because you may or may not succeed here."
In California, conditions also are worsening. A weekly food bank for refugees at the Los Angeles IRIS office had about 65 people coming when it started nine months ago, Decker says. Now, 120 to 130 show up each week. Some have to be turned away.
The total amount of money that each refugee receives upon arriving in the United States is between $425 and $450—a stipend to defray initial costs of rent, transportation, food, and other necessities. Some get additional monthly benefits. Ateyah's family—including his wife, who is unemployed, and their two daughters, ages 2 and 4—receives $598 per month. But these benefits usually end after the first few months. Employment, therefore, is crucial.
Also key are the other benefits that resettlement agencies provide. To help refugees begin their new lives, the agencies give them everything from pots and pans to mattresses on arrival. The agencies themselves receive $450 to $475 per refugee from the government to defray administrative costs, a sum that remains the same whether the agency is in Los Angeles or Milwaukee.
Therefore, they say, they depend on private donations to provide for their clients. And those are down in resettlement offices across the country. Decker estimates that at her office, they've fallen 50 percent from last year. "I'm in a panic about how to find resources," she says, especially as she's been told to expect at least 200 more refugees next year than this year.
All of these difficulties are frustrating for refugees like Ateyah, who, he said, were given a different story before they came to the United States.
"In Jordan, they told us another thing: that you will be very welcome, you are a victim of the world, and we will start to put a new life for you; you will find a job as a doctor," he says.
That dream hasn't crystallized yet, but he's hoping it will.
"Sorry, I am not one of people who wants to stay home and get benefits and do the cooking," he says. "No, no, no."