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UAlbany Study: Access, Opportunity Pose Greatest Employment Barriers for Refugees in the U.S.

Refugees Reported the Discounting of Past Work Experience, Complications with the Job Search and Application Process and Exploitation as Most Common Vocational Stressors

Zeyad Alsaadi, who moved from Iraq to the United States seven years ago as a refugee, is now an American citizen.

ALBANY, N.Y. (May 1, 2018) – A study conducted by the University at Albany found that access to jobs and job opportunities are the most commonly reported barriers to procuring a job in the United States as a refugee.

In an survey that addressed vocational stress among refugees, 30 percent of comments from the 159 refugees who participated referred to obstacles such as difficulties in meeting job requirements, complications with the job search process and exploitation.

Lisa Baranik, one of the study’s researchers, said that little research has been done on why employers might not consciously or unconsciously acknowledge work experience from a refugee’s home country, nor has research meaningfully address stigmas refugees often find associated with them upon arrival.

“It’s really frustrating for refugees, because they’ve had this tremendous amount of experience and these great roles and opportunities, and then when they come to their new country employers don’t care,”

Baranik said. As a result, she added, many refugees are forced to work long hours, do highly strenuous tasks and earn lower pay than native-born citizens.

Learning a Language Through Employment

Nearly a quarter of the responses in the survey reported “acculturative” barriers, including ineffective refugee support agencies, climate differences and problems with navigation and transportation, according to the study.

Zeyad Alsaadi, an Iraqi refugee, said not knowing English was a big obstacle when he first moved to the United States with his wife and five kids seven years ago.

“When I first started working, I could only understand some of what my supervisor would say,” said Alsaadi, whose first job in the States was in housekeeping at a Holiday Express in Latham, N.Y. “Work is very hard when you can’t answer any questions.”

He said that working in hotels gave him the opportunity to become more comfortable with the language, however. He advises refugees in a similar position not to shy away from seeking employment.

“A lot of jobs don’t need the English; they need the help and they need your mind,” said Alsaadi, who is originally from Baghdad. “Not knowing English is not something to stop your life.”

Seeking out opportunities to gain language skills through a job is especially crucial given the benefits that employment can provide to refugees, including establishing a social network, securing improved living conditions and supplying necessities, according to Baranik, an assistant professor in the School of Business.

“There’s an interconnectedness about experiencing trauma, mental health, and the ability to go out and practice learning the language that can really determine whether a refugee can successfully adapt to a new country,” she said, saying it’s an issue that organizations like the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) and the Refugee and Immigrant Support Services of Emmaus (RISSE) are working to resolve with their language programs.

Baranik, who has been involved with refugee assistance programs since May 2017, began mentoring Alsaadi and his family through New York for Syrian Refugees, a non-profit organization started by UAlbany faculty member Ilham Almahamid.

New York for Syrian Refugees focuses on providing support to the 40 Syrian families living in the capital region, but also supports non-Syrian refugees facing extraordinarily difficult circumstances, such as Alsaadi’s family. Mentors can provide language tutoring, offer friendship and networking opportunities, and help secure donations.

Facing Discrimination

The study also found that the only vocational stressor linked to mental health is facing discrimination, which is linked to higher levels of anxiety, depression and sleep disturbances.
This finding is surprising given the magnitude of other stressors refugees must overcome, and sobering given the fact that anxiety and depression among refugees are almost twice as high as migrant workers, according to Baranik.

“Refugees have experienced a lot of trauma and overcome so many things, and then they come to the United States they experience all these other stressors,” she said. “It’s a reminder for everyone to go out of their way to help refugees because they do experience discrimination, and that discrimination hurts them.”

To avoid subconsciously biasing during the hiring process, Baranik suggested that employers both provide and engage in trainings that seek to cultivate awareness about the stigmas associated with being a refugee.
On the research team with Baranik were Carrie Hurst, associate professor of business administration at Tennessee State University, and Lillian Eby, psychology professor at the University of Georgia. The study, “The stigma of being a refugee: A mixed-method study of refugees’ experiences of vocational stress,” was published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior in March 2018.

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